A national title loan company is paying the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office thousands of dollars to stake out a North Portland bar and grill known for its all-you-can-eat spaghetti specials, home-style breakfasts and dedicated keno players.
The owner of the Sweet Home Bar and Grill on North Lombard Street thinks the unusual arrangement is aimed at scuttling his business. Northwest Title Loan, a business that offers high-interest loans in exchange for vehicle titles, forks over $74 an hour, 45 hours a week, to keep an armed, off-duty officer in a cruiser outside the bar next door. The title company says it had concerns about disorderly, inebriated customers.
But bar owner Dennis Frank thinks his working-class clientele isn't a bunch of rowdy drunks, and that the company wants him to break his lease and leave the shared lot, opening up more room for parking.
"They would like to run us out of business so they can get the parking," he says. As to why his law-abiding customers would shy away at sight of a patrol car, he says: "It's just intimidating is all. After they have a few beers, they don't want to get back out in the car and drive, afraid they'll be picked up."
Northwest Title told Portland police, who worked the detail for the first two weeks of July before the sheriff's office took over, that bar patrons were backing their cars into the building and intimidating customers. Asked to elaborate, the company's general counsel, Michael Reed, said the company's president observed money changing hands in the parking lot and thought he'd seen a drug deal. "What else could it be?" Reed says.
Although it may come as a surprise, both the Sheriff's Office and the Portland Police Bureau offer their cruisers and officers for contract jobs. The service usually is bought for short-term events, like film shoots, or by municipalities that lack their own patrols.
Sheriff's Office spokesman Lt. Bruce McCain admits this is an atypical contract. Portland police pulled out of the deal after no problems arose at the bar, says North Precinct commander Cliff Madison. "It sounded like whatever issues they had weren't there anymore," he says.
Madison saw less and less evidence that the detail constituted a legitimate law-enforcement purpose, a policy requirement for off-duty contracts. He encouraged the title company to call a lower-cost private security firm. Portland police charge about $50 an hour.
Instead, Northwest Title called the Sheriff's Office, which charges even more per hour. No serious incidents have arisen under the sheriff's watch. Capt. Garr Nielsen says the service will probably end next week.
Northwest Title store manager Esmerelda Rapp-Spangle says she's never had any problems with the bar and that the company president ordered the police detail after a visit. "I think he was afraid that there may be some bad elements in the area," she says, adding that Sweet Home "makes great French toast."