South Side's revelry challenges police

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Officer Colby Neidig pounded on the wooden door of the South Side Flats apartment and shouted over the roar of hard-core metal music from inside.

"Pittsburgh Police -- open up! Hello?"

No one answered. Officer Neidig pounded and shouted again and again, then realized the door had popped open. He and his partner, Officer Keith Stover, walked through the small apartment's kitchen and living room, which were strewn with empty beer cans and food-caked dishes, and into a bedroom where piles of clothes covered the floor.

Officer Stover shouted at the naked couple passed out on the bed under a down comforter, trying to wake them. The woman didn't move. The man, in his early 20s with black tattoos covering his pale chest, wrapped the comforter around his hips and stumbled into the living room to jab at an iPod hooked up to the roaring speakers. The screaming stopped.

Wide-eyed and staring, he blinked at the officers.

"I know it's St. Patrick's Day and all, but you've got to be more considerate of your neighbors," Officer Stover said.

It was 11 p.m., the officer told him, and one of those neighbors had complained about the noise.

"I'm sorry, officer," the man said. "I apologize. I didn't even think about it."

Late on St. Patrick's Day, as on most weekend and numerous holiday nights, many people on the South Side weren't thinking much about the neighbors. On East Carson Street, from the 10th Street Bridge to the Birmingham Bridge, the blue and red light bars of police cruisers flash almost continuously as late nights verge into early mornings and the crowds get rowdier.

In call after call -- sometimes to the same address -- officers dispel noisy crowds, punish public urination and vandalism, break up fights and deal with the fallout of intoxicated people going home to the Flats and Slopes. They also must answer calls from city neighborhoods such as Mount Washington, Beltzhoover, Knoxville, Arlington, St. Clair Village and the Mount Oliver neighborhood next to Mount Oliver Borough.

Some longtime residents say they welcome the development that has saved the now-trendy South Side from turning into another area whose industrial heart was cut out by the collapse of the steel industry.

But incidents such as the shooting death last weekend of Nicholas Haniotakis, 33, by a state trooper after police say the man tried to run over the trooper and a city officer, have prompted City Councilman Bruce Kraus to ask for more state help patrolling a neighborhood that people treat "like it's Mardi Gras all the time." The state Liquor Control Board licenses bars, including the 124 in the South Side's 15203 ZIP code, and state police enforce liquor laws.

"This is just the first of many incidents that will continue to happen if we don't get a handle on this," Mr. Kraus, who represents the South Side and lives in the Flats, warned last week.

On St. Patrick's Day, the neighborhood's personality change started early. At 6 p.m., joggers were still running down the streets and sidewalks, carrying their keys and water bottles. People walked their dogs and carried home groceries. The only bar with a big crowd was Fat Head's Saloon, where patrons were drinking happy-hour beers and devouring burgers, wings and ribs.

By 7 p.m. a group of 30-something skateboarders had set up shop on 15th Street next to a jacked-up pickup truck. They did a double take as two young women wearing tight jeans strutted across Carson Street toward Mario's South Side Saloon. One of the men called out and a blonde walked back and hugged him, kicking back one gold high-heeled shoe like a girl in love. Giggling, the women scampered into Mario's, where cheers greeted them.

Three friends wearing green walked by a few minutes later, debating where to have a drink. One of them, a woman wearing a green and white boa, slurred her opinion of a bar.

"That place is a joke," said her friend, a man wearing a shiny green Mardi Gras-style bead necklace. "It's nasty." They kept walking.

Over the next few hours, the bars filled up. By 11 p.m., many of their customers started to come back out.

By then, a line had formed at the ATM at 18th and Carson streets. Groups of people in their 20s and early 30s were chatting and smoking outside Town Tavern, Mario's, Z:Lounge, and The Smiling Moose.

Officers Neidig and Stover, after hours of answering calls in Mount Oliver neighborhood and Arlington, were patrolling the Flats and keeping an eye on the bars. They slowed down at Mario's, where two men were talking heatedly inside the door.

"Cop, cop, cop, cop," people nearby warned the two men.

"Everything all right here?" Officer Neidig asked a young woman in pigtails, smoking a cigarette outside with her friends.

Yes, she said.

"Nothing going on after we leave, right?"

"No, absolutely not," she said.

Outside Town Tavern, a crowd of several dozen people -- some in white and green boas, shiny beads and green wigs -- had formed to smoke and chat. One woman leaned heavily on her date's shoulder. Another danced her version of an Irish jig.

Just down the street, yet another examined a parked Harley Davidson, tottering a little on the sidewalk in white high-heeled shoes.

Around midnight, the calls began to come more quickly. The elderly residents of a high-rise across the street from Z:Lounge complained about noise from the bar, where the door had been propped open and music from a live band was pounding. As Officers Neidig and Stover arrived, the bar's manager stepped outside and closed the door quickly before they could walk in.

The manager promised to keep the door closed, and the officers moved on. Officer Neidig pulled his cruiser into a parking lot on Carson Street. A tall girl in black tights and a short skirt was walking away from a long, wide puddle that was streaking over the pavement toward the cruiser.

She saw the officers, flipped jet black hair over her shoulder and stalked away.

"That's class there, sweetheart, real class," Officer Stover called after her.

She was lucky they hadn't actually seen her urinating, he said. They would have issued a citation.

By 12:30 a.m., the crowd had deepened at Town Tavern. A man, his legs splayed apart and his head lolling forward, leaned against the outside of the bar in a stupor. A police officer on a security detail near the door waved in acknowledgement at Officers Neidig and Stover as they drove by.

They paused to shoo people outside the ATM on 18th Street back onto the sidewalk. One of them, a young man, stepped toward the cruiser instead to show Officer Stover his military ID card.

"Can you get back up onto the sidewalk, please?" Officer Stover said. "We don't want you to get hit by a car."

"I'm sorry, sir," the man said.

"Don't be sorry," Officer Stover said. "Just get back on the sidewalk."

Called to check out a report of shots fired at 21st and Josephine streets -- a report they couldn't verify -- and then by a complaint about loud music, the officers returned to Carson Street for a call to break up a fight outside Shootz Cafe just before 1 a.m. They pulled up behind four other cruisers and a transport wagon, their lights flashing.

Outside the bar, Officer Daniel O'Hara was leaning into a tall, burly, bearded man wearing a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey. There was no problem, no altercation, the bearded man said.

"Whatever they told you, they were lying," the man said, nodding to a skinny young man and two girls standing nearby.

"I see that you came out of the bar when you didn't need to," Officer O'Hara said. "So you're both at fault. Give me your ID."

"I think this is blown out of proportion," the bearded man told Officer O'Hara, who bristled and raised his voice.

"If I wouldn't have pulled up right here, there would have been blows exchanged, in all likelihood," the officer said.

He was obviously highly intoxicated, Officer O'Hara said, writing down the man's name. If the police got called back to Shootz for a fight, they would come looking for him. The man looked down and stopped arguing.

The skinny man said he had been defending a woman the other man had been propositioning aggressively. Officer O'Hara told him he was free to go.

After responding to another call about a fight, this time at Casey's Draft House, that either was a false alarm or resolved itself before police arrived, Officers Neidig and Stover pulled up behind an officer who had discovered an open garage door at a model townhouse on Merriman Way.

The garage was full of furniture, and the interior door to the $480,000, two-bedroom townhouse didn't have a lock. The officers called the real estate agent whose information had been left on an island in the kitchen, then checked the house to make sure no one was inside. Along the way, they admired the home's stainless steel appliances, flat-screen TVs and tall glass windows.

Someone could put a cushion in the deep sill of the floor-to-ceiling window near the living room and make a reading nook, said Officer Stover.

"Then you can look out and see all the drunks peeing in your alley," he joked, as he and the other officers left the house just before 2 a.m.

Back on patrol, they pulled onto Carson Street. Ahead of them, another cruiser had stopped in front of Town Tavern, shining its spotlight on a crowd that had grown to nearly 75 and completely blocked the sidewalk. Several people stood in the street near the gutter.

"Go home," the officer yelled from his cruiser. "Go home."

A few people in the crowd eyed the cruiser. A few at the fringes wandered away. The rest, smoking and laughing and hugging and play-fighting, ignored him completely.

Amy McConnell Schaarsmith can be reached at 412-263-1122 or .


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