Saturday nights at Webster Hall are predictable enough. A few hundred people pack East 11th Street by the nightclub's entrance, waiting to get patted down for guns, knives, and drugs, then get drunk and throw up on the neighbors' cars. And around 2 a.m., there's usually a street fight. The Ninth Precinct cops routinely bust it up with a siren. Two Saturdays ago, however, the local badges were called in to discipline their own.
According to the Internal Affairs Bureau, which is currently investigating the incident, as many as twelve off-duty cops may have been involved in a brawl, which nearly blinded one officer and sent a bouncer to the hospital. Further complicating the issue, the NYPD had previously forbidden local off-duty cops from patronizing Webster Hall. One officer has been suspended just for being there on the evening in question.
According to witnesses and police, the cops had been attending a bachelor party around the corner, then moved to Webster Hall. At 2:11 a.m., in a dark stairwell, a bouncer shone a light at one of the patrons and told him to keep moving. A shouting match erupted, then the bouncer was smashed in the head with a bottle. The fists started flying.
Off-duty cop Harry Hernandez, a ten-year veteran of the Ninth, was standing outside the open door when a spray of glass lacerated his left eye. Amid the clamor, a friend hustled him into a cab and sped him to the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary three blocks away. For two days, it looked as if he might lose the eye.
"I really have no idea what happened. I was just standing there" he says. "I just came with a friend from Brooklyn."
If Hernandez didn't know what hit him, a dozen other people might. According to officers from Internal Affairs, several members of the bachelor party were involved in the stairwell mêlée. Bouncers used flashlights, fists, and retractable nightsticks to beat the raucous partygoers down the stairs. The brawl tumbled into the street, where bouncers eventually managed to break it apart. By the time the on-duty police officers had responded to the call, the disturbance had boiled over several times, as furious party members spit obscenities inches from the bouncers' faces.
The chaotic scene was captured by New York on a videotape that is currently being viewed by Internal Affairs. "Their faces are pretty clear," says one detective. "We'll be taking it around looking for names." About the brawlers' affiliation, however, there should be little doubt. At one point, a man walks toward the camera, punches his fist in the air, and, identifying himself, shouts: "Seventh Precinct. Webster Hall security sucks. And let 'em know. There were a bunch of our officers here and they fucking beat the shit out of one of our officers."
"It's just the raw edge of human emotion," says club owner Lonnie Ballinger. "These guys come in here -- I know them so well. All the pressure they're under. We're not holding any grudges."
None of the members of the bachelor party would comment about their involvement. Several calls to the bouncer went ignored. Hernandez, the injured cop, won't discuss it, referring all questions to a PBA official.
And even Ballinger was quick to downplay the incident, explaining that "somebody just stumbled, and that got everything going. The bouncer slipped. He feels real bad."
Nevertheless, the Internal Affairs detective vowed that the investigation would continue. "We'll see if it rises to the level of criminality," he said. "Obviously, if a cop assaulted someone, you think they'll want to talk to me?"
But someone talked, and it was likely someone from the Ninth, since only an East Village cop would know that fellow officers weren't allowed at the club. "Each precinct knows what's off limits to their cops," says Police Department spokesperson Cheryl Cox. "Cops in other precincts might not know what's off limits." With 76 city precincts, she adds, "you'd need a book to consult every time you went out." That might not be a bad idea.