Bottoming Out 

When the local Crime Commission looked at crime data from January to June 2004, they found a surprising fact: Christie's — an adult nightclub that boasts hot girls and one-cent drafts — accounted for only 0.1 percent of all crime in its ward.

During that same period, however, nearby Hickory Ridge Mall accounted for 7.5 percent of the crime in the area. In fact, even Ridgeway Middle School reported more crime than Christie's.

But for Eric Damian Kelly, the strip-club-ordinance specialist, even those numbers suggest the city needs to change its relationship with sexually oriented businesses.

Both the City Council and the County Commission are considering new restrictions on sexually oriented businesses, including a ban on alcohol sales and stricter licensing requirements.

"The Memphis Shelby Crime Commission did a study with the records to show adverse secondary effects on the community," Kelly told a recent City Council committee. "They found high schools and convenience stores were more of a detriment to the community than strip clubs."

Of course, if that were true, Memphis would be in more trouble than a cheating husband. Local strip clubs have a reputation for being raunchy, as well as havens for illegal activity. The so-called Mt. Moriah Performing Arts Center, Platinum Plus, where Kelly witnessed a live sex show, was shut down last December because of drugs and prostitution. The Black Tail Shake Joint, known for its "back door," was closed in February under a public nuisance complaint.

But the numbers — or lack of them — are somewhat telling. The Crime Commission noted that most strip clubs have a "do not call" policy when it comes to law enforcement; generally, schools and convenience stores do not.

Currently, the city handles violations at sexually oriented businesses in three ways: beer board fines for the establishment, fines for individual dancers, and nuisance complaints.

But those options provide about as much coverage as a G-string.

The business fines are too small to matter. Brief suspensions of beer licenses have little impact, and within recent history, the beer board hasn't revoked anyone's license.

A fine might make a dancer think twice about hopping back on stage — if her establishment doesn't pay it for her — but there are always other girls to take her place. And the nuisance complaints take months, if not years, to develop a solid case.

"You need to shift enforcement," Kelly said. "Cite the establishment instead of the performers. It's worth going after the back rooms."

In a report to the council, Kelly recommended banning back rooms that are not visible to the public and utilizing penalty provisions with fines up to $2,500 and possible jail time.

Though the report suggests citing owners and managers, dancers could face stricter penalties, too. The report said dancers should be prosecuted for prostitution since the penalties for that are more serious than penalties for "being bottomless."

And let's be honest. Being bottomless is one thing. Being bottomless and on top of someone giving you dollar bills is another.

More importantly, Kelly recommended keeping a record of every citation or violation for alcohol, drugs, nudity, and sexual activity and tracking it by establishment, owner, and entertainer.

In the past, clubs have changed names — even their holding companies have changed names — while the owners and the establishment remain virtually the same. There are several clubs in town, but only a few owners.

For Kelly, a tough licensing ordinance would go a long way in eliminating repeat offenders.

"You [should be] able to pull [an owner's] license and he wouldn't be able to get another one," Kelly said.

County commissioner Mike Ritz, sponsor of the county proposal, agreed. "Everybody who works in the clubs and all the owners would have to get a license. It doesn't take long to say you're going to be out of here."

Not that everything is a done deal. The county is expected to hold a public hearing later this month, and new council member Henry Hooper II is working with Ritz on a joint city/county proposal. City Council members were interested in the implications of a ban on alcohol sales and the legal challenges they would encounter.

(Apparently, "birthday" aren't the only suits club owners are familiar with.)

"They're going to sue you as a matter of principle if you take a hard line," Kelly told council members, "because you're threatening their income."

I know there are people out there who think regulating sexually oriented businesses is a waste of time. Maybe it is. The city has let shake joints get away with so much for so long, it might be better off creating a strip-club district and taking the local industry from infamous to just plain famous. Doing that, however, would still require more regulation.

On its own, a tougher licensing ordinance — along with a better relationship between club owners and operators and police officers — could forgo the need for undercover operations, such as the 24-month investigation that succeeded in closing Platinum Plus.

Veteran councilmember Jack Sammons said he'd rather see police officers fighting crime than staking out the shake joints.

"I want to see our police resources on the ground dealing with the crime issues we have," Sammons said. "When we have officers measuring if someone is 12 inches away from Pamela Anderson, then I think we have a problem."

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