Atlanta Police face criticism after shutting down bars early in Midtown during Black Gay Pride over the Labor Day weekend. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Atlanta Police apologize for early bar closings during Black Gay Pride

Atlanta Police said the forced early closing of several Midtown gay bars Monday during Black Gay Pride Labor Day weekend festivities was a misread between the department officials and officers on the street.

APD shut down at least four bars and restaurants in the heart of the city’s gay community — 10th Street at Piedmont Avenue — at 12:30 a.m. Monday, even though city policy allows them to stay open two hours later than normal on a Sunday during the Labor Day holiday weekend.

The doors should have stayed open until 2:30 am Sunday per a city ordinance but APD shut the businesses down early.

An openly gay member of the Atlanta Police force made the move after becoming concerned that crowds were spilling out onto the streets, causing potential public safety hazards, APD spokesman Carlos Campos said in a statement.

“Closing the bars early was, very simply, an honest mistake based on a communication failure,” Campos said, adding that Zone 5 Commander Major Darin Schierbaum planned to apologize to affected bar owners in person.

“The morning watch supervisors should have been aware of the City Council’s extension of bar hours for the Labor Day weekend, but they were not,” he said. “The department sincerely apologizes to the affected business owners and their patrons.”

Some bar owners and candidates running for mayor accused APD of bias based on race and sexual orientation, saying police don’t have miscommunications during other large gatherings such as St. Patrick’s Day or the larger Atlanta Pride festival.

Former Atlanta City Council President Cathy Woolard, who is running to succeed Kasim Reed as mayor, said in an statement, “Given the fact that no other bars were shut down in this way, it is difficult not to interpret the action as discriminatory against the LGBTQ community. That this incident took place during Atlanta’s 21st annual Black Gay Pride, an event that is extremely significant for our city, only compounds the problematic nature of the decision.

The area was filled with revelers celebrating Black Gay Pride, which brings thousands of members of the nation’s African-American LGBTQ community to Atlanta. The police proceeded to close the bars despite protests from the establishments’ operators that city policy allowed them to say open.

The incident comes as APD has spent several years mending its relationship with the gay community after a controversial 2009 raid at the Atlanta Eagle, a gay club on Ponce de Leon Avenue. The raid, which included slurs and patrons forced to lay on the floor, cost the city more than $1.5 million in settlements. APD promised to improve officer training and sensitivity regarding the gay community as a result and hired a liaison to foster open communications.

APD Chief Erika Shields said she was disappointed by the morning team on Zone 5 and has moved the commander in that area to another zone.

“While I do not believe the commander purposely set out to act in a discriminatory manner, his actions certainly gave that perception to bar owners, managers and patrons,” Shields said in a statement on Wednesday. “Our commanders and officers simply must show more sensitivity to the concerns of our diverse communities.”

CANDIDATES RESPOND

Here’s how other candidates for Atlanta mayor and city council president reacted to the closing:

Atlanta City Councilman Alex Wan, candidate for council president: “I learned just this morning of the Monday morning early closures of the bars/restaurants at 10th and Piedmont. I immediately communicated my extreme disappointment directly to the Zone Commander that these establishments in our community were impacted. APD has assured me that they are enhancing their deployment and communications protocols to prevent this from happening again, and I will follow that closely, particularly as I am introducing legislation today for extended hours on Pride weekend.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore, council president candidate: “I spoke personally with APD’s Chief Shields this morning and again this afternoon about my anger at independent businesses being forced to close early — especially on Black Gay Pride weekend. Chief Shields and APD report there will be new deployment and communication procedures put in place ASAP, hopefully ensuring this will not happen again. Unfortunately these conversations are happening too late for our guests that were here last weekend, so I am extremely focused on making sure that APD and the rest of the city has the tools they need to ensure the upcoming pride weekend in October happens as smoothly as possible.”

Atlanta City Councilwoman Mary Norwood, mayoral candidate: “In response to my telephone call to Chief Erika Shields, I received a detailed explanation and an apology for the incident. Chief Shields said in part, “…Any notion the bars were targeted because of their clientele is unfortunate and simply not true …” I accept the Chief’s explanation as to what clearly was wrongful action based upon communication failure.” That being said, given the APD’s reassessment of standard operating procedures in the wake of the 2009 Atlanta Eagle gay bar incident, I am quite dismayed that this error in judgment and miscommunication occurred at all.”

Former city of Atlanta COO Peter Aman, mayoral candidate: I am very disappointed in the actions of the APD personnel that forced these businesses to close. I really want to have a culture that has a sense of urgency and customer service. We need to make sure people are not only properly trained, but follow protocol.

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