Hot and bothered

The city's ordinance governing topless clubs is a joke. But Bachman Lake-area residents are determined to get rid of the clubs by any means necessary.

For example, TABC has recorded 10 lewdness-related offenses at the Fare West since 1994, as well as a handful of solicitation charges, while Baby Dolls has racked up 13 lewdness-related offenses in that time. Such offenses normally occur when the bumping and grinding of a lap dance crosses into the realm of arousal, says Christopher Burnett, a TABC staff attorney in Austin. When undercover agents get aroused during a lap dance, they somehow manage to snap out of their reverie and spring into arrest mode.

TABC regulations call for clubs either to close their doors for 60 days or to pay $9,000 fines for each offense -- pocket change to larger clubs. But clubs rarely are forced to close for lewdness alone. While clubs are often shuttered if a patron drives home drunk and gets into a deadly accident, Burnett says TABC "normally settles the lewdness cases out, because that's the nature of the beast."

A top city vice cop insists his detectives are responsive. "We work on complaints," says Deputy Chief John Sullivan, head of the police department's narcotics and vice division. "Somebody gives us the info, we work the complaints." Undercover vice cops, he says, went to Baby Dolls Saloon in early February after receiving lewdness complaints, but they left after they failed to witness any lawbreaking. Perhaps they weren't sufficiently aroused.

Mark Graham
The bright lights of Déjà Vu on Northwest Highway, one of four clubs in a compound that has long drawn ire from neighbors
Mark Graham
The bright lights of Déjà Vu on Northwest Highway, one of four clubs in a compound that has long drawn ire from neighbors

Sullivan's answer doesn't satisfy the irrepressible Dickey, who asks: "Since when is law enforcement supposed to be reactive instead of proactive?"

Cops have better things to do, retorts the TABC's Burnett. "There's not a single police department or sheriff's department in Texas that is not undermanned and overworked," he says. "If they've got a choice between getting drunk drivers off the road or busting some dancer in a titty bar for squeezing some guy through his pants, it's just a matter of priorities."

The bitter dissatisfaction of Dickey and other activists with police enforcement at Bachman Lake topless clubs underlies their real wish: to run the clubs out by busting them for every niggling infraction of the law. Eventually, paranoid patrons would refuse to come back.

The topless clubs' opponents, who have not been successful in recruiting low-income residents of Bachman Lake to their struggle, chatter hopefully about this scheme. Jerry Bartos, the former city councilman, says he went to Chicago in the early '90s to observe that city's tactics for hounding out strip clubs, which he believes should be imported south to Dallas. "I noticed they had shut down all those topless bars," he says. "I came back like a Cub Scout and said, 'Here's how they did it.'"

For starters, Bartos recounts, Chicago officials unleashed a heavy police presence on the clubs, carding everyone every few days. They conducted frequent weapons checks. Then they flooded the bars with inspectors of every stripe: health, electrical, plumbing, the works. And if cops made an arrest, they never erred on the side of leniency. "If you can make a felony out of a misdemeanor, it's always a felony," Bartos recounts glowingly.

So it's that simple: Dallas officials lack the political moxie to impose draconian policing strategies on legal but unfavored types of businesses. "In this city, the top people would leave us out to hang when pressure comes," Bartos laments. "The rank-and-file police are eager."

What can be done to rein in Dallas' SOBs -- short of busting heads? Laws motivated by moral approaches to restrain SOBs are unrealistic, since adult-entertainment venues have a constitutional right to exist, says Donald Lyons, a geography professor at the University of North Texas in Denton who has studied SOB location-control efforts in Dallas. The Supreme Court sets guidelines every four or five years for SOBs, he says, but clubs quickly find loopholes.

And while New York City and some other cities have herded SOBs into backwater areas, more prosperous Dallas clubs have fought such moves, a situation that has led Lyons to conclude that regulatory strategies are flawed as well. "As the industry grows larger and more sophisticated, their ability to frustrate and circumvent zoning ordinances is likely to increase," he writes in a study on Dallas' SOBs published last year in Applied Geographic Studies, an academic journal.

He suggests a more positive approach, based on the premise that most cities' SOB laws spell out where SOBs can't locate, rather than where they can. "You can't have them near a church, you can't have them near a school," he says. "Well, where do you want them? Until people honestly ask that question, it's as much our fault as the SOBs."

Lyons cited a proposal advanced by former city Councilman Don Hicks in 1993 and 1998 as a more realistic solution. Hicks proposed the creation of a "red-light zone" in a seven-block area of Downtown, arguing such a zone was needed since the city's costly efforts to fight lawsuits and disperse the clubs had failed. Both times, however, the measure failed to gain traction. After all, which city council member would want a red-light zone in his district?

Lyons, whose study identified 61 licensed and nonlicensed SOBs within city limits in 1997, also doubts that SOBs are the danger to the community that opponents portray them as. He compared arrest records and found no evidence that adult businesses attract serious crime, such as murder, robbery, and rape. Only prostitution and indecent exposure, he asserts, occurred with greater frequency in SOB zones -- and not necessary because SOBs are there. "You can't say SOBs are causing prostitution or vice versa," he says, "because there's a demand for both and both are linked." SOBs, he says, "look [to locate in] transitional areas, which are in the same areas you find prostitution in."

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