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Blush owner: Police needed to curb panhandling

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Thursday, April 25, 2013, 11:33 a.m.
 

Acting Pittsburgh police Chief Regina McDonald freely admitted Thursday that she won't let officers work off-duty at Albert Bortz's Downtown club because he has women taking off their clothes.

“If he closed the strip joint, there wouldn't be an issue,” she said. “It would just be a bar.”

Bortz, owner of One Three Five Inc., which does business as Blush, is suing the city and McDonald over her March 13 decision to enforce a standing regulation that prohibits off-duty officers from working in uniform for businesses that would bring the department into “disrepute.”

He testified that Blush needs a police presence to keep panhandlers away from its customers and staff.

“There are aggressive panhandlers Downtown,” Bortz said.

The club has hired off-duty police officers for crowd control and to keep panhandlers at bay for 48 years, he said.

“People are very comfortable there, and it's important that we keep that level of professionalism,” Bortz said.

The club claims McDonald's decision violates its First Amendment right to free speech because courts have ruled that stripping is a protected form of speech. In effect, McDonald is denying it a service available to every other business because of the club's message, said Jonathan Kamin, one of the club's lawyers.

“We are here seeking to protect our rights to engage in this (constitutionally) protected speech,” he said.

The city contends that it has a right to determine where police officers work, particularly when they are in uniform and can exercise the authority the city gives them to arrest people and use deadly force.

McDonald said she made her decision partly because of a fight over the opening of a strip club in the West End and partly because of a March 11 Tribune-Review story that said New Orleans, Toledo and several other large cities don't allow their officers to work off-duty at strip clubs.

West End residents fought the opening of Club Controversy only to have a uniformed police officer standing outside the door when it opened, she said.

“People didn't feel police officers should be working strip clubs,” she said.

In addition to Blush, she has banned officers from working at Cheerleaders Gentlemen's Club in the Strip District and for Club Controversy, which since has closed, McDonald said.

U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer directed both sides to file their final set of arguments by May 15. She said she would probably issue a ruling soon afterward. Fischer said earlier Thursday that she already had started writing her ruling and, at the end of the hearing, pointed to a thick binder filled with her staff's research notes.

“We've already done substantial work on this case,” she said. “It was just a matter of hearing the evidence, filling in the blanks.”

Pending in the case is Blush's motion for a temporary restraining order that would block McDonald from banning officers from working at the club and the city's motion to dismiss the case.

Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or bbowling@tribweb.com.

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