Judge: Downtown strip club Blush can hire off-duty police during legal challenge
Even strip clubs have a constitutional right to hire off-duty Pittsburgh police officers, a federal judge ruled on Monday.
Public Safety Director Michael Huss said the department will comply with the decision, which reversed the acting police chief's recent ban on a Downtown club hiring off-duty officers.
“We believe that the chief of police ought to have the ability to determine where these guys work,” he said.
One Three Five Inc., which does business as Blush, in March sued the city and acting Chief Regina McDonald, who had banned officers from working for the club.
U.S. District Judge Nora Barry Fischer ruled that McDonald's ban probably violated the club's constitutional rights and suspended it while the club pursues its lawsuit.
Jonathan Kamin, a lawyer for the club, said the ruling may clear the way for the sides to resolve the issue.
“Discrimination is wrong for all purposes,” he said. “We just want the city to stop discriminating against us. If we can get them where we need them to be, we're happy to settle.”
The club will formally ask the city to allow it to hire an officer starting on Friday, he said.
Huss declined to say whether the city would appeal the judge's order. “It's ongoing litigation, so there's not a whole lot I can say,” he said.
Fischer ordered McDonald to restore the club to its list of approved secondary employers. She denied the city's motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
McDonald didn't return a call for comment. Wendy Kobee, assistant city solicitor, said her office was reviewing the order.
The club contends the ban violates several constitutional rights, including its First Amendment right to provide strip shows and its right to be treated the same as other legal businesses.
Craig Granberg, 54, of Gibsonia, a chef whose father is a retired Pittsburgh detective, said the city police chief shouldn't have the ultimate say over where officers can work off-duty details.
“I don't think there should be a blanket rule,” said Granberg, who was walking Downtown. “The City of Pittsburgh cannot condone the use of officers by one business over another. It shouldn't be so much a discussion on morality but how we want to use our police in official capacities and by private businesses.”
Evidence presented during an April hearing on the club's request for a temporary injunction showed it has hired off-duty officers since 1966.
McDonald testified then that her reason for the ban was that Blush is a strip club. If it were just a bar, she would allow it to hire off-duty officers, she said.
She based the ban on a 2007 Police Bureau policy prohibiting off-duty officers from working at places that would “tend to bring the Bureau of Police into disrepute.” McDonald said she is the first chief to interpret strip clubs as falling under that restriction.
She testified that she made the decision upon reading news articles that reported some cities ban officers from working at adult entertainment businesses.
Sgt. Mike LaPorte, president of Fraternal Order of Police Fort Pitt Lodge No. 1, said McDonald ignored the union's advice when she invoked the ban.
“I think she was just reacting to that article and not really thinking the situation through,” he said. “She looked at the policy and made a snap decision.”
Allowing strip clubs to hire off-duty officers provides for safer venues and deters crime, he said.
“It wasn't broke, so what are you trying to fix?” LaPorte said.
Fischer said she believes the club will win its case because McDonald “terminated its secondary employment status based solely on the fact that plaintiff's dancers engage in expressive conduct protected by the First Amendment.”
The city argues that McDonald has authority to decide where police officers work in uniform because the city remains their employer even when a private business pays them. It argues the ban hasn't interfered with the club's free speech rights because it continues to operate.
Businesses pay about $40 an hour for off-duty officers. That includes a $3.85 per hour administrative fee the city charges. The fee is one of several matters federal investigators are looking at in an investigation of the police department that appears to be widening to include Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, his current and former bodyguards and secretary.
A federal grand jury in March indicted former police Chief Nathan Harper, 60, of Stanton Heights with diverting some of the money to accounts he opened at the Greater Pittsburgh Police Credit Union and spending at least $31,986 on personal uses. The grand jury accused him of failing to file tax returns for four years. McDonald became acting chief when Ravenstahl asked Harper to resign in February.
Staff writer Jason Cato contributed to this report. Brian Bowling is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-325-4301 or firstname.lastname@example.org.