The owner of a downtown Phoenix gay bar accuses police of using binoculars to spy on him and his customers from an adjacent high-rise. And he's right.

But exactly why this is happening is under hot dispute.
According to the bar owner, Steve Johnson of Cruisin' Central, the problem started a few months ago when police moved into a high-rise office building on the northeast corner of Central and Roosevelt.

Just to the north is Cruisin' Central. Phoenix Police Department spokesman Kevin Robinson says it's "just a coincidence" the police set up shop on the ninth floor of the high-rise.

But bar owner Johnson says that what's happened since is no coincidence. In a formal complaint filed with the police department's internal affairs bureau, Johnson says he's been ticketed for nine alleged liquor violations since July. (He claims he hadn't received any such citations for two and a half years prior to that.)

He also accuses police officers of cursing him and one of his bartenders in disputes over parking spaces in an adjacent parking lot.

"They've ruined my business," fumes Johnson. "They do not want to be next door to this kind of place."

Police spokesman Robinson says the proximity of the police officers to the bar is "just a coincidence," and he denies that there's an antigay bias by the cops who have investigated the bar.

In the early Eighties, patrons of gay bars often complained that police were tracking them, copying down license-plate numbers in parking lots and making menacing walk-through patrols of the bars.

But the situation has apparently calmed in recent years. Ron Barnes, director of the Gay and Lesbian Switchboard, an information clearinghouse for the gay community, says he doesn't hear those complaints from bar patrons as regularly as he did five years ago.

That was also true of Cruisin' Central, says Steve Johnson--until the police moved in next door, he adds.

Robinson says the police did not rent office space in the nine-story building to spy on the bar. Then what are the cops doing there?

The police spokesman says it's "extremely sensitive" work and he won't elaborate, except to confirm that vice officers are among those stationed in the high-rise.

(An employee on the ninth floor of the building told a visitor recently that the offices house staff from the department's drug-enforcement and organized-crime details. About 25 people--none in uniform--appear to be working in the two adjacent offices, which are not identified on the building directory or on office doors.)

The gay bar next door hasn't received any special attention because of its proximity to police, Robinson insists. He says vice officers started investigating the bar after getting public complaints about "sexual indecency" in the parking lot. Says Robinson, "We operate with that bar like we would with other bars if we were to get complaints."

But the bar owner says he isn't buying it.
In August, Johnson says, he argued with police officers over parking spaces. He says one of them cursed him and, referring to the bar, threatened to "close down that shit hole."

In September, Johnson was notified that his bar had been cited by the police department for nine liquor violations since July. The alleged violations included the presence of drunken people and open cans of beer in the parking lot, according to police reports.

Johnson dismisses the alleged violations as "a bunch of crap." And he says he's also upset about the July 12 spying incident from the police roost next door, which a police report confirms.

According to records, two police officers "were observing the rear" of the bar "for illegal activity" around lunchtime when one of them allegedly saw "a suspect" with "an open Budweiser can." The officers never saw "the suspect" drink from the can, nor did they contact the "suspect" or the bar, according to the report. Nevertheless, the officers decided to write it up as a violation and send it along to state liquor authorities.

Bar owner Johnson contends the officers were watching him clean the parking lot of empty beer cans.

Bartender Judy Walker, who claims she has been hassled and cursed at by the neighboring police officers, says former customers call her to say hello rather than coming to the bar, because they don't want to risk being bothered by the police. "I'm sure they hassle other bars, too, but they're bugging us every day," she says.

Asked about the allegations leveled by the bar owner and bartender, police spokesman Robinson says Johnson's complaint is under investigation, and action will be announced within a month.

A police spokesman says it's "just a coincidence" that the police set up shop on the ninth floor next door.

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Ellen Grant