Friday, April 11, 2014

Cedar Creek Lake mayor promises end to police surveillance of gay bar

Retiring is such a hard thing to do, especially for an old reporter who knows the story might not be told unless he steps up.

That's where I found myself this week when I heard about what I perceived to be an injustice. I tried to ignore it all, but my conscience would not allow it after I learned law enforcement activity on Cedar Creek Lake seemed to be targeting my community.

This is what I learned about the lake's only LGBT bar being surrounded by police cars at the end of the evening last weekend. 

In the wake of widespread social media conversations and perplexity on the part of local gay leaders, Mayor Paul Eaton promised surveillance of patrons of Gun Barrel City gay bar Garlow's would end immediately.

In an interview after the Cedar Creek Lake Area Chamber of Commerce luncheon on April 10, Eaton said he met with the owner of the gay bar and the city's police chief that morning and had resolved the problems.

"I hopped on it as soon as I heard about it," Eaton said. "We don't want to be known for that."

On April 5 following a drag show at the gay bar, patrons leaving the bar met as many as five squad cars sitting outside of the bar, Drivers who failed to signal whether they were turning left or right were stopped, according to sources at the scene. Several DUI arrests were made.

One squad car followed the operator of the bar as he attempted to walk home and and handcuffed and jailed him on a charge of public intoxication, allegedly without testing him for intoxication.

A survey of other nightclubs in Gun Barrel City revealed Garlow's was the only bar targeted for the operation.

Employees of the bar said surveillance by Gun Barrel City police cars had been ongoing for weeks.

Eaton said he did not believe the operation could be attributed to "gay bashing," but he condemned the arrest of the bar's operator. "That was ridiculous," he said.

"It was a misunderstanding," Eaton said. "It is the busiest bar around. They were looking for drunks and drugs."

Eaton said the police chief had met with the police officers prior to the meeting with the gay bar's owner. The police chief "had already taken care of the problem," he said.

New police officers have joined the police force recently.

"I regret it happened," Eaton added.

Slingerland said after his arrest on the public intoxication charge that he pleaded no contest and paid the $352 fine. There are no plans to pursue the matter further, he said.

"I didn't want to make it about me," Slingerland said. "It's about the bar and the people. I just wanted it to stop."

City Manager Gerry Boren said the police chief continues to examine the situation in an informal review.

Boren said the number of squad cars reported to be involved at Garlow's does not add up. There are only two cars on duty at a time so the only way there could have been more than two cars at the bar at the same time would be if it happened during a shift change, he said.

To have more than four on the scene would require the presence of county law enforecement officers in cars being present as well, Boren said. The county has two cars in the area, he said.

"It's practically impossible," Boren said.

Boren said he is confident the police chief who has been on the force for 15 years would not condone anti-gay bias, and that there are no prejudiced officer on the force.

"But if that perception is out there, I need to change it," Boren said. "I have challenged the police chief to change it. It's a human factor."

Boren said the police department has received complaints about drunks on the highway, but no complaints about Garlow's specifically.

Gay bars have operated in the Cedar Creek Lake area for at least two decades, and they have not experienced problems with law enforcement. Cedar Creek Lake has a large population of retired LGBT residents and weekenders.

The owner of Garlow's, Michael Slingerland, contributed $1,000 to Eaton's re-election campaign, and there is a campaign sign supporting the mayor outside of the bar.