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Politics

Officials seek early closing time for adult clubs on The Block in Baltimore

Last call could come a lot earlier for dancers and patrons at strip clubs on The Block in Baltimore, as police and politicians are trying to force a 10 p.m. closing time in the adult entertainment district in an effort to curb crime.

Senate President Bill Ferguson, whose district includes The Block, introduced a state bill mandating the early closing time.

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“This is not a step we took lightly,” Ferguson said. “We know that there’s controversy around the licensing and hours regulations, but we’ve got to stop the violence.”

Ferguson and Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison said The Block, a stretch of East Baltimore Street downtown that includes strip clubs, other adult-oriented businesses and carryout restaurants near the Baltimore Police Department headquarters, has seen an increase in violent crime and calls to police, leaving other parts of the city’s central police district with fewer officers.

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Harrison said in a statement Thursday that the early closing time is necessary because violence “within and resulting” from clubs on The Block has “drastically increased in recent months.”

Harrison said that police had 831 calls for service to The Block in 2021, including eight shootings with 11 victims. He did not say how many of those incidents occurred after 10 p.m.

Ferguson, a Democrat, said he didn’t know how many calls came after 10 p.m. But he told reporters that it seems that problems occur after midnight “when people were leaving establishments and congregating.”

“In other areas of the city where we’ve seen the restriction on the consumption of alcohol, we know that there has been a decrease in violence,” Ferguson said. “We know that the concentration of alcohol-selling establishments is correlated highly with violence.”

Three state delegates who represent the same district as Ferguson — Dels. Luke Clippinger, Robbyn Lewis and Brooke Lierman, all Democrats — plan to introduce a companion bill in the House of Delegates. The bill also has the support of Baltimore City Councilman Eric Costello, a Democrat who represents the area.

It isn’t feasible, Costello said, to devote the number of police officers need to patrol The Block to make it safe given the needs of other parts of the central district.

“Our police department’s resources are limited, and only an unrealistic level of resources would help bring safety to the area,” he said. “This is a resulting action that is being taken to make that area safe.”

Sponsors of the bill can expect opposition.

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Attorney Andrew Saller, who represented the Penthouse Club last year in a legal battle with the city over pandemic-related closures, said he has been in contact with several owners of clubs on The Block about the bill.

Saller said he believes the proposed law is of “dubious constitutionality.”

”I think it is targeted at speech,” he said. “Baltimore unfortunately has a crime problem, and it’s not all isolated to The Block. To pick these individuals to be scapegoats is unfortunate.”

He added: ”Is the true aim here to close The Block and deal with crime or is it to redevelop it?”

Efforts to reach representatives of clubs on The Block were unsuccessful late Thursday.

The bill was submitted as emergency legislation and would take effect immediately if it is passed and becomes law. Emergency bills require a three-fifths vote in both the Senate and House of Delegates.

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The bill would apply to all businesses that hold both liquor and adult entertainment licenses in a defined geographic area that surrounds The Block.

Baltimore Mayor Brandon Scott did not request the bill, according to his chief lobbyist, Natasha Mehu.

“We are aware of the bill and are reviewing it,” Mehu said Thursday.

In the General Assembly, lawmakers typically support bills that apply to a specific geographic area when all of the local lawmakers are on board, a process known as “local courtesy.” While all of the lawmakers who have The Block in their district are sponsoring the bill, it’s not clear yet whether they’ll try to bring the rest of the city’s delegates and senators on board.

Sen. Cory McCray, a Democrat who chairs the Baltimore City Senate Delegation, first heard about the bill Wednesday night. He said he was “open” to considering it and wanted to hear from neighbors and the police about the proposed clampdown on operating hours.

McCray said he backed a similar set of operating-hours restrictions on liquor establishments in a small stretch of his Northeast Baltimore district that had been plagued by shootings and dozens of homicides. McCray said he credits those restrictions, which took effect in July 2020, with helping significantly drive down violence in the immediate area.

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Sen. Antonio Hayes, a fellow Baltimore Democrat, said he’s also passed similar restrictions in his district on the city’s west side. Hayes said he only recently learned of the bill and hadn’t spoken to Ferguson or other supporters but “would definitely consider” backing it.

“I would imagine the activity on The Block requires a lot of police resources,” Hayes said.

Other Baltimore senators said they were just learning about the bill and declined to comment.

Del. Stephanie Smith, a Democrat who chairs Baltimore’s delegates in Annapolis and represents the same district as McCray, said she used to have an office overlooking The Block and would watch the goings-on on the street below.

“There have been some challenging dynamics over the years,” she said, including some violent incidents inside and directly outside the clubs.

Smith said she doesn’t have a position on the bill yet, but she’s open to having a conversation with fellow delegates and senators about ways to curb violence on The Block.

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Baltimore Sun reporters Emily Opilo and McKenna Oxenden contributed to this article.


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