The Onyx Social Club & Restaurant surrendered its licenses Monday.(Photo: Gary Porter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)
The troubled Onyx nightclub has surrendered its liquor and entertainment licenses following a shooting earlier this month. Onyx Social Club & Restaurant, 3120 W. Villard Ave., voluntarily gave up its licenses Monday, Common Council President Ashanti Hamilton said.
“Onyx has some challenges and those challenges have been a problem for residents living nearby and for patrons, Hamilton said Tuesday in a statement announcing the decision. The most recent trouble was an Oct. 16 shooting near Onyx following an altercation that occurred inside the club.
In that case, 22-year-old Lillie Jones, a Wisconsin Department of Corrections employee, was bound over for trial Monday on charges related to the shooting of a 22-year-old woman. The two women were involved in an altercation at Onyx and, after they left, Jones shot the woman as the victim sat inside a car, according to a criminal complaint. This month’s shooting was just the latest trouble for the club. Earlier this year, a 27-year-old was shot during a fight inside the club on Milwaukee’s north side. Back in September 2013, Common Council members voted to shut down the club after hearing police testimony that the place was a “chronic policing problem.” Neighbors had reported hearing random gunfire, noise, fighting and experiencing serious crowd and traffic problems.
The following April, the club, renamed Onyx Social Club & Restaurant, returned with a new person in charge: Jerrel Jones, 74, publisher of the Milwaukee Courier, a weekly newspaper, and owner of WNOV-AM 680. Obiora Obi, the club’s former operator, remained a co-owner. At that time, Milwaukee police told aldermen they opposed giving Jones the licenses to operate because of the past problems, which included the shooting of a security guard, the stabbing of a patron, fighting and drug possession, and Jones’ own lack of experience. The Common Council ultimately voted to give Jones the license in July 2014.
The club’s most recent liquor license application, which was filed in June 2016, listed Jones and Obi as co-owners. Neither could be reached for comment Tuesday.
The club was supposed to have a 25 and over age restriction, online city records show.
Licenses to operate an establishment in the City of Milwaukee are a privilege, and my goal is to maintain balance and cohesiveness by ensuring that businesses abide by very clear standards of safety, health and order in the neighborhood, Hamilton said Tuesday.
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One of Portland Mayor Charlie Hales’ bodyguards is a retired Los Angeles County police officer who in 2010 reportedly admitted using excessive force at least 10 times. The allegations come at a time when Hales is under fire for his lax oversight of the Portland Police Bureau and when citizens are outraged at the concessions he recently made to the Portland Police Association in closed-door contract negotiations. Criminal justice activists are alarmed that a person with Cohen’s history works in City Hall and carries a gun while doing so.
“There are so many things about it that strike me as wrong,” says Portland civil rights lawyer Ashlee Albies. “I don’t see how Hales or his staff could miss that this would be a major concern. I find that incredibly offensive.”
Cohen, 52, has worked on the City Hall security detail since early 2013. He rotates through posts guarding City Hall, the Portland Building and the mayor’s office. Cohen served as one of two sergeants-at-arms for the City Council on the morning of the Oct. 12 police contract vote, which was held behind closed doors after Hales became concerned protesters would attempt to “occupy” the meeting.
“Officer Michael Cohen [ ] admitted to knowingly using excessive force at least 10 times, obtaining official records for personal use at least 50 times and lying to supervisors or in reports at least 30 times, hiring records show,” the Times wrote. Hales’ chief of staff, Tera Pierce, says her office can’t be expected to know the full histories of people working in City Hall.
“The process of hiring our security is not handled in the mayor’s office,” says Pierce. “We have processes in place to make sure a rigorous background check was done before putting them in place. We have to trust our systems.”
Don t Shoot Portland founder Teressa Raiford marches to Mayor Charlie Hales house on Oct. 14, 2016. (Joe Riedl)
Cohen’s job on Hales’ security detail is part of a larger contract the city has had since 2006 with G4S Security Systems, a London-based multinational security firm formerly known as Wackenhut. Originally a one-year contract worth $1.1 million, it has grown over the past 10 years. The company currently has a five-year, $6.9 million contract for its work with the city. In 2010, Mayor Sam Adams outsourced the work of his security detail, previously handled by the Portland Police Bureau. The mayor’s office says contracting out the work to a rotating crew of six or seven security guards provides a cost savings for the city.
As part of this detail, Cohen is responsible at times for keeping order in City Council sessions which includes calling the police to eject protesters who disrupt public hearings. Cohen has used physical force against protesters at least twice while working for Hales. Video footage appears to show him shoving a protester at a parade last year, though it’s not clear from the footage who started the altercation. Pierce defends Cohen’s record of service in the mayor’s security detail, where he has worked since early 2013.
“A few weeks ago, when we had a protest here in City Hall, he stood in front of our doors while getting shouted at,” says Pierce. “I couldn’t have handled it for five minutes. He stood there, calm and cool and collected.”
The mayor’s office also provided an email testimonial from Ronault “Polo” Catalani, who runs the New Portlander Policy Commission, the city’s immigrant and refugee integration program, and observed protesters’ recent interactions with Cohen.
“[Cohen’s] demeanor is what folks in many if not most of our ethnic minority communities would call that of a kind elder uncle,” writes Catalani. “His professional conduct, his personal style are an ideal I believe we should all emulate in times of conflict between Portlanders.”
Cohen is tall and beefy, with a thick white mustache. He moves slowly and cautiously. Video obtained by WW of him interacting with protesters last month shows him chatting pleasantly with a massive crowd packed in the hallway outside the mayor’s office door demanding to see the mayor.
“Why do you have gun on you?” asks one of the protesters.
“I’m one of the mayor’s bodyguards,” he says, fidgeting almost shyly, hands in his pockets. “You go to every city in United States. Usually, it’s a police officer. We’re the only city that uses retired police officers.”
“You’re a police officer?”
“Retired,” Cohen corrects the protester, smiling and rubbing his nose. “I was not a police officer here in Portland. I was a police officer in Los Angeles.”
A Portland City Council hearing this month. (Emily Joan Greene)
When the Los Angeles Times reported Cohen’s admission of using excessive force, the paper based its report on confidential hiring files from when Cohen applied to work for the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which took over the duties of the county’s Office of Public Safety. (The L.A. County Office of Public Safety, where Cohen worked, had been eliminated that year as part of a county workforce reduction.)
As part of that application process, Cohen and other officers underwent a polygraph exam, according to an age-discrimination lawsuit later filed by Cohen and other officers, most of whom were denied jobs in the sheriff’s office. In some cases, investigators for the sheriff’s office who handled the hiring process asked follow-up questions to officers who failed the polygraph, according to the Times story. It’s not clear from the Times‘ reporting why exactly Cohen acknowledged the reported misdeeds, or if he made the admission during the polygraph. Under California law, the hiring files are confidential. (The Times and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department both declined to provide a copy of Cohen’s file to WW.)
Cohen, who was never hired by the sheriff’s department and retired from police duty after 21 years of service, declined WW‘s repeated requests to talk about his reported admissions. He was never prosecuted.
“Cohen disputes a lot of the information in the report,” says Pierce, though she says Cohen acknowledges being disciplined two times for use of force within the first five years of becoming a police officer. The information hid in plain view for nearly three years a mere Google search away.
The mayor’s office pointed to multiple background checks that Cohen has gone through. Between his retirement in Los Angeles in late 2010 and his services as the mayor’s bodyguard, Cohen first went overseas for a year with G4S, requiring a federal background check the mayor’s office cited as stringent and proof of the company’s own high standards. He then worked for a year as a manager in G4S’s Portland office before starting at City Hall.
“We don’t do Google searches on people,” says Suzy Herring, program manager at DPSST. “We don’t do reference checks or anything.”
John Chandler, who oversees the mayor’s safety detail for G4S, says he was also unaware of the allegations.
“Mike was part of the detail that was with the mayor when he met with the president,” says Chandler. “You don’t get through Secret Service unless you’ve been vetted very, very deeply.”
He says City Hall security guards also receive an annual background check from the Portland Police Bureau, which would include an assessment of Cohen’s job performance. But the background check conducted by the Portland Police Bureau is limited.
“It would not include researching Google, social media, etc.,” says PPB spokesman Sgt. Pete Simpson. “All we are looking for is criminal information that would potentially prevent them from being in a secure area.”
The decision by the mayor’s office to downplay Cohen’s past could add to Hales’ reputation as detached from public concerns, particularly on policing.
Mayor-elect Ted Wheeler, who takes office in January, declined to say whether Cohen would serve as one of his bodyguards.
“I have not decided if I will have a security detail, and I haven’t decided how it would be organized or who would be part of it,” says Wheeler. “I don’t know Mr. Cohen. I do know this: Integrity and honesty are of great importance to me, and I expect my team to reflect those values.”
Names of the unlicensed security officers have been forwarded to prosecutors for possible charges, but investigators were only able to identify two of the seven dog handlers, said Capt. Jay Gruebele of the Morton County Sheriff’s Department. Providing private security services without a license is a Class B misdemeanor in North Dakota. Six pipeline opponents were bit by the guard dogs and a dozen or more people were pepper sprayed when the group clashed with security officers in a pipeline construction zone on Sept. 3, according to a protest organizer with the Red Warrior Camp.
Morton County led an investigation into whether the security officers were properly licensed and forwarded results to both the state’s attorney and the North Dakota Private Investigation and Security Board, which regulates the private security industry and can also issue civil penalties. The seven dog handlers were with Frost Kennels of Ohio, which was not licensed to provide security in North Dakota as required by state law, the investigation found. Frost Kennels was working under Silverton, a private security company working for Dakota Access, Gruebele said. Silverton is no longer working for Dakota Access, he said.
Frost Kennels did not cooperate with investigators, who were only able to identify two of the seven dog handlers through social media, Gruebele said. However, Forum News Service identified three additional private security officers working Sept. 3 who are named in a Bureau of Criminal Investigation affidavit made public last week who are not licensed in the state. The two dog handlers’ names that have been forwarded to prosecutors include Ashley Welch, who appears in video captured by reporters with the independent news program “Democracy Now!” with a dog that has blood on its mouth and nose.
Prosecutors attempted to charge “Democracy Now!” journalist Amy Goodman with rioting, in part basing their affidavit on statements from Welch that said Goodman was actively protesting and “trying to get the protesters riled.” A judge refused to sign the complaint. Gruebele said the security officers had no intention of using the dogs or the handlers for security work on Sept. 3, but because of the protest events the dogs were deployed to try to keep protesters under control. The security company 10-Code also worked for Dakota Access on Sept. 3 but was not involved with the use of dogs, Gruebele said.
The investigation does not have any information about how many protesters were injured.
“To date, there have been no victims, no protesters that have ever come forward to the sheriff’s department or to any other organization to file a report that they were injured or bitten by a dog on Sept. 3 during the incident,” Gruebele said. The Bureau of Criminal Investigation is doing a parallel investigation regarding the incident, including looking into reports that security guards were assaulted, Gruebele said. In addition, the Private Investigation and Security Board is conducting its own investigation after receiving complaints, including investigating the use of guard dogs, said Monte Rogneby, an attorney for the board.
The board’s investigation is expected to be complete in seven to 10 days, Rogneby said. A summary by the sheriff’s department said there is no way of confirming whether lists of employees provided by security firms are accurate or if names were purposely withheld.
“Many of the initial security officers have come and gone and there is no way to prove who was doing security work,” Gruebele wrote in the summary. A spokeswoman for Dakota Access said all security firms working for the pipeline company are properly licensed.
As of Oct. 18, several security companies were working for Dakota Access. According to the Morton County investigation, TigerSwan Security is in charge of Dakota Access intelligence and supervises the overall security. Leighton Security and HE Security are in charge of equipment security at work sites. The firms 10-Code and Russle Group Security are in charge of drilling operations and SRG Security is in charge of filming operations, according to the Morton County investigation. The Sept. 3 clash occurred after pipeline opponents rushed a Morton County construction area west of Highway 1806 where crews were bulldozing land the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe had identified the day before as containing burial grounds. Dakota Access, a subsidiary of Energy Transfer Partners, disputes the tribe’s claims that burial grounds were destroyed, and a state archaeologist’s review did not identify sacred sites in that area.
Morton County concurs with the state archaeologist’s findings after three separate walk-throughs of the area in question were conducted, said county spokeswoman Donnell Preskey.
The American Civil Liberties Union of North Dakota, which condemned the actions of the security guards as excessive force, would like to see the investigations come to a fair resolution, said policy director Jennifer Cook.
“It seems as though the process for charging journalists and protesters with criminal charges has been relatively speedy and timely, whereas you have actual video footage of private individuals using force against other private individuals and yet we haven’t seen any type of resolution to that yet,” Cook said.