On some nights, a dozen bouncers equipped with pepper spray keep the peace at Checkerbar Food and Liquor.
The corner bar and pizza place, at 992 Arcade St. on St. Paul’s East Side, is owned by an ex-cop and has regular visits from the police. Though fights occasionally break out, the owner’s son, Chi Chazonkhueze, said Checkerbar is just a neighborhood joint trying to tamp down crime in a tough part of the city.
“You got your bad apples out here and things happen,” Chazonkhueze said on a recent Friday as he bartended for a quiet happy-hour crowd.
Yet the bar and its security practices have repeatedly landed the business in trouble with police and license inspectors. Owned by Tou Cha, the Checkerbar has been cited four times for failing to provide surveillance video to police.
In June, Chief Todd Axtell took the extraordinary step of firing five officers who he said failed to intervene when they saw someone physically assaulted. The police department did not provide details about the incident, but a source familiar with the case told the Star Tribune that it involved Cha, who was accused of beating a man with a baton outside the bar in summer 2018.
Cha was charged by summons late last year with three counts of felony assault. His attorney, Jack Rice, has said police should have stepped in.
“Knowing that this place is what this place is, and that there are good people in this bar, all of these people deserve to be protected and to be in a public space that is safe,” Rice said in an interview Friday. “And when the police fail in their role, it’s a failure for society, not just their failure.”
The city is contemplating new penalties on Checkerbar’s license after a fifth episode of failing to share surveillance video, according to Ricardo Cervantes, director of the St. Paul Department of Safety and Inspections.
Cha’s pending criminal counts might also play into that action, he said.
“In this case, having a crime borne out and proven would have a huge impact on whether or not the license would be revoked,” Cervantes said.
Cha, 50, could not be reached for comment.
As a St. Paul police officer in the 1990s and 2000s, Cha was suspended for a total of seven days without pay for working off-duty inside a bar, failing to document his use of force against two young men and hitting a man whom he transported to detox, according to Internal Affairs records provided by the department.
He resigned in 2005 after pleading guilty to lending out his service pistol, which was then used to shoot up the home of a Hmong leader.
Cha previously co-owned a Frogtown nightclub called Bangkok City, which the city shut down in 2003 after shootings, fights, underage drinking and numerous code violations. He went on to open Checkerbar, also known as Checkerboard Pizza, which lists Cha’s wife, Mai Her, as the license holder.
Bouncers work both inside and outside the bar, which can hold 300 people, Chazonkhueze said.
Since Checkerbar was first licensed in March 2011, police have filed more than 370 reports related to the business; 31 of those were filed in the past year.
Police reports obtained through a public-records request between Jan. 1, 2018, and June 11, 2019, note that 992 Arcade is a “mandatory report address.” St. Paul Police Sgt. Mike Ernster said that means officers are required to file a report every time they respond to a call there.
“Anytime there’s a call there, a report needs to be written to document what the complaint was and what the officers found when they got there — basically trying to stay informed of everything that’s going on at that property, based on if there’s any license violations, things like that,” Ernster said. “And is the property becoming a problem in that area?”
Though the reports show some officer visits were proactive checks or off-duty work, at least eight were in response to reported assaults — including some where bouncers allegedly choked, struck or pepper-sprayed patrons.
In April 2018, a fight broke out while officers were already nearby. A police report said the fight involved about 10 people, including bouncers who “deployed their batons and sprayed pepper spray.”
According to the report, police arrested a man who employees said had started throwing punches when he was deemed too drunk to let into the bar. They took him to Regions Hospital and photographed his injuries, including a laceration requiring eight staples.
Alleged assault victims and witnesses in multiple cases did not respond or declined to comment. Calls to employees listed in police reports were not returned.
Asked about bouncers using pepper spray and batons, Chazonkhueze said they use pepper spray to protect themselves — people have pulled knives on them, he said. Bouncers also search customers with a metal detector wand before they come in, he said.
“I’ve gotta protect my customers, you know,” he said.
In December, a man called 911 and said Checkerbar staff had assaulted him. In interviews with police, bouncers said the man had tripped and fallen as they escorted him out of the bar.
Security footage of the incident didn’t show what happened before the man fell. In one recording, a bouncer could be heard telling another employee to “delete anything in there,” according to a police report.
“I asked him if he deleted part of the video and he said no, he does not have any information about how to delete anything,” an officer wrote in an incident report.
After multiple unsuccessful attempts to reach the alleged victim, police determined the case did not meet the threshold for charging by the Ramsey County Attorney’s Office, according to a Jan. 2 report.
The City Attorney’s Office issued five violation notices to Checkerbar between 2011 and 2018 — once for employing an underage bartender and four times for failing to provide surveillance video when police asked for it, including after the fight in April 2018.
The violations haven’t happened often enough to trigger a license revocation, Cervantes said.
The City Attorney’s Office is reviewing the department’s most recent recommendation for sanctions in February, which Cervantes said he cannot discuss. The City Council has the final say on such a penalty.
The criminal case against Cha could affect how the city deals with Checkerbar, Cervantes said. Under city ordinance, a business must pay a $2,000 fine the first time an employee commits a felony on the premises and will lose its license the second time.
Staff writer James Walsh contributed to this report.