Each day before her New York Avenue bar opens, Esther Gaona said she slips on a pair of gloves and begins carefully searching under the billiards tables and behind the eight-liner machines for drugs or drug paraphernalia that customers may have left behind.
Gaona, owner of the Billares Mi Tierra for nearly 17 years, said she used to only worry about underage kids trying to buy beer or customers with guns or knives looking for trouble. But since police arrested a woman last April for selling drugs inside the east Arlington bar, Gaona said officers have been harassing her, her employees and her customers in search of other dealers.
“No one wants to come to a bar when they know police will come flashing light at their head and start searching for no reason,” said Gaona, who said she’s lost 60 percent of her sales since January. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t close my pool hall. This is all I have to survive.”
Earlier this month, Gaona asked the Arlington City Council to investigate the conduct of police officers she said have cursed at her customers and employees and have threatened to make up reasons to arrest them during repeated searches of Billares Mi Tierra. On Gaona’s behalf, the League of United Latin American Citizens also has formerly asked the department to investigate her complaints of harassment, racial profiling and intimidation and to look into whether officers are violating city policy.
“She just wants them to leave her alone. She has lost an awful lot of money,” said Lico Reyes, a long-time LULAC leader. “Our people are kind of scared of cops because they come from a society where cops are not a good person.”
Arlington police declined to disclose how long they have been investigating Billares Mi Tierra at 1601 New York Ave, but did say the bar is known for illicit drug activity, with officers making 10 drug-related arrests in 13 months, according to records obtained by the Star-Telegram. This does not include arrest of one customer during a traffic stop who linked his drug purchases back to the bar, police spokeswoman Tiara Richard said.
Still, the department is investigating Gaona’s complaints and sat down with her Tuesday to hear her concerns, said Lt. Christopher Cook, a police department spokesman. From that meeting, the department agreed that a police supervisor will meet with Gaona regularly “to make sure she is successful and her business is successful and that she has a good working relationship with the police department.”
“The Arlington Police Department takes allegations of misconduct very seriously,” Cook said. “We investigate allegations to either see if misconduct occurred or to exonerate our employees. We will continue to look into allegations raised by Ms. Gaona and look forward to a good relationship with all our business community that serves alcohol.”
“I feel like they are the enemy”
Gaona said her problems with the Arlington police began on April 1, 2013, when an officer pulled over a vehicle for a traffic violation and the driver — who was arrested after he was found with a small bag of cocaine — said he had bought the narcotics from a woman at Billares Mi Tierra.
Officers used the information to obtain a search warrant and later that night arrested a woman who was found with cocaine and methamphetamine. During the search, officers seized some of Gaona’s surveillance equipment — installed at the police department’s recommendation to enhance security — as part of the felony drug investigation.
Officers accused her of knowing about the illicit drug activity and threatened to arrest her, Ganoa said.
Before then, Gaona said she had a friendly relationship with officers. A graduate of the Arlington and Grand Prairie citizens police academies, she said it wasn’t unusual for new beat officers to stop by the bar and introduce themselves. But since the April drug arrest, Gaona said the frequent searches and sometimes hostile conduct of the officers has left her feeling that her “business is under siege.”
“I feel like they are the enemy,” Gaona said. “I don’t know how we went from being friends and me feeling comfortable calling to all of the sudden I’m terrified.”
One week after the search, Gaona asked Arlington to investigate the officers’ actions, which she said included a male officer refusing to allow her to close the bathroom door for privacy. Arlington police closed the investigation June 4, finding that officers had not violated policy, Cook said.
Multiple bar checks
Since then, the Arlington police have been back.
In a little over one year the police have been to the bar 49 times — responding to 10 calls for service and 39 officer-initiated calls including 11 bar checks — from Jan. 1, 2013, to Jan. 31, 2014, according to records. During those bar checks, officers are not only searching for alcohol-related violations, they have the authority to search common areas of the locations for drugs and drug paraphernalia if the location is known for that type of activity, Cook said.
Officers conducted three bar checks in January and made drug-related arrests involving methamphetamine and cocaine on two of them, according to the department. Police said they also seized several baggies of a controlled substance hidden in a public area of the bar.
Gaona said the officers conduct during the bar checks went too far, saying that she has seen officers make her customers lie on the ground and then search them “top to bottom and they didn’t find nothing on them.” She also said that during one of the searches an officer flipped over the couch in the back room and moved all the 8-liners away from the walls.
“The only thing that wasn’t moved was the ATM because it was bolted to the ground,” she said.
Gaona provided written statements to the city from two patrons who witnessed one of the searches, including a male customer who said he was falsely accused of drug possession. That man was arrested during a Jan. 24 bar check after police said they found a wadded up napkin with a controlled substance inside near the 8-liner machine he was playing.
A female customer, who was playing a machine near the man, wrote in her statement that officers were “very aggressive and talking foul” and that she and other patrons who were falsely accused of possessing and selling cocaine had their possessions searched and were threatened with arrest.
Seeking an apology
Gaona, who has hired security on the weekends, said she doesn’t know who is selling drugs at her bar and that she wants the illicit activity to stop so she can stay in business.
“Now when I come in I put on my gloves and go look for napkins. Now I have to look for drugs,” she said.
Since she can’t afford security seven days a week, Gaona said she wants to work with the police to keep her business drug-free. But her trust in them has been strained by some officers’ aggressive behavior.
“I don’t want special treatment. If they are going to do a bar search, do it professionally,” Gaona said.
In its request for an investigation, LULAC notified the department that it was seeking a formal apology from the officers involved, a notation in their employee file and the return of video surveillance equipment that was seized from Billares Mi Tierra last April as part of a felony narcotics investigation. The department released that equipment this week.