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Situated in shady parts of the city, many of these clubs draw rough crowds. Both Orfeón and Fiesta Latina are notorious with the liquor board for violent fights and problems with underage drinking and serving liquor after hours.
As a kind of pre-emptive strike, says Phoenix Police Sergeant Randy Force, off-duty police officers -- armed and in uniform -- are hired by the clubs to provide security. "They're paid by the business, so it's not coming out of the taxpayer dollars, so to speak, for them to provide extra service to a business that's creating an atmosphere that generates a lot of criminal acts," Force says.
At Club Orfeón, the "atmosphere that generates a lot of criminal acts," as Force puts it, most likely has to do with the long wait to use the men's rest room. People line up to buy coke, crack, crystal. Most of Club Orfeón's clientele are decent people there to dance and enjoy themselves -- not to cause trouble. But the club is also a hot spot to buy and sell drugs.
The police can't do much about the drug dealing that's going on in the Orfeón rest rooms. In fact, they can't even use the rest rooms.
Allowing armed, uniformed police officers to act as security guards for nightclubs is a practice that is explicitly banned by some other police departments -- Los Angeles, for instance. Phoenix does allow it, but, as remarkable as it sounds, Phoenix PD officers are not allowedto go inside the clubs. Force says this is to prevent the appearance that the officers are drinking inside the bar. It seems an uneasy compromise for the sake of keeping up appearances -- particularly when the root of the violence outside the club may be directly related to laws being broken inside.
Nonetheless, when the off-duty cops guarding Club Orfeón need to use the bathroom, they go a Jack in the Box next door.
The wisdom of the police approach seems even shakier considering that armed officers are in a situation where they often don't speak the dominant language, don't understand the culture, and are surrounded by drunken clubgoers who don't trust them, don't like them, and may not know the difference between a city police officer and a Border Patrol agent.
This volatile mix blew up for the Phoenix PD last year at Fiesta Latina on McDowell Road. Undercover officers began conducting surveillance of off-duty officers when complaints came in that one of the officers was taking bribes in exchange for not turning patrons over to immigration. Bribery was not observed, but a surveillance video caught officers throwing a patron down a flight of stairs.
Two officers were fired after the incident, but it didn't inspire the PPD to re-examine its policy about allowing officers to work the clubs.
Club Orfeón has hired off-duty officers since 1994. That year there were two shootings at Orfeón, and police were called once to break up a fight. Since the police presence began, three more acts of violence and one fatal shooting have been reported.
On the evening of March 10, Alfonso Celaya would make his first and last visit to Club Orfeón.
When Miriam Celaya, her brother Noel, and his wife pull into the Club Orfeón parking lot about 10:15 p.m., they park near a white pickup, not noticing that it is their brother Alfonso's.
On the way into the club, they pass Sergeant Lowell Spalla, a 10-year Phoenix police veteran and one of four officers working the outside of Orfeón tonight. Typically, Spalla works Friday nights, but he's picked up an extra shift this weekend.
A security guard frisks patrons on the way into the dimly lighted club. People line one side of a mirrored wall, resting cans of beer -- no bottles here -- on a small ledge. A bar, bordering the back wall, and an elevated DJ booth frame a dance floor where couples grind to a constant stream of cumbias.
Noel Caudillo has been coming to this club for nearly 10 years. When he and his sister Miriam arrive tonight, they are shocked to see their youngest brother, Alfonso, standing along the wall of the club. With him is his friend from Mexico, Narvel.
Alfonso has never been to this club before, and he isn't 21. Miriam and Noel approach their brother, and Alfonso explains that a couple of people in the group he's with tonight are underage. They couldn't get into the Macarena, so they came to Orfeón.
On the dance floor, Rafa is dancing with his girlfriend, Estrella, the birthday girl. Estrella's friends are in another part of the club. Alfonso dances once with Rafa's little sister, Mariana, but spends most of the evening standing along the wall. Around midnight, Estrella and Rafa go outside to check on one of Estrella's friends, who is fighting with her boyfriend and has run out crying to a phone booth outside the club.
The pair steps out into the cool March night, a quiet contrast to the stuffy club. They pass the police officers patrolling outside, awaiting drunken troublemakers. Estrella and Rafa walk over to join Estrella's friend who sits beneath the fluorescent street lamps.