Owners of Port 251, a gay-owned bar and restaurant in Rehoboth Beach, Del., are accusing local police of discrimination and harassment, claiming on-duty officers regularly sit outside the venue for the duration of its popular drag brunches.
Tony Sacco, an owner of Port 251, said police began to routinely visit the venue during drag performances because of alleged noise complaints, at times measuring the volume of performances from outside and fining the restaurant for violating the city’s noise ordinance.
Joe Maggio, co-owner, alleged that this response from city police began after the venue received noise complaints in 2020, and continued until the restaurant was no longer considered in violation months later. Maggio also alleged that in 2020 city officials criticized the police department’s repeated stationing of officers outside the venue, yet, since the start of the summer, the venue has again been confronted with a police presence.
Sacco and Maggio emphasized that the restaurant has worked to comply with the city’s noise ordinance, reducing the volume of its music and directly reaching out to the chief of police and city commissioner, but later received complaints from officers over patrons clapping too loudly and drag artists performing on the restaurant’s patio.
“I’m not sure who it’s bothering at 12 o’clock in the afternoon,” Sacco said. “They weren’t coming because of a call at that point.” Sacco pointed to other local establishments having speakers or performances outside their venues, at times even extending onto the city’s boardwalk, but not facing the same police response.
“The police officers are apologetic when they arrive,” said Maggio, noting that, despite numerous conversations with clients and local community members, he has not heard of any ongoing noise complaints regarding the performances.
But Lt. Jamie Riddle, professional standards unit commander of the Rehoboth Police Department, said that officers are not placed outside of events “unless there is a public safety concern.”
Riddle added that the agency has begun to meet with the restaurant’s owners and “proactively investigate the noise associated with the Friday and Sunday performances” — not necessarily in immediate response to a public complaint.
Still, Riddle noted that the agency’s response follows a string of noise complaints from the local community received by the city’s dispatch center beginning June 19, as well as a formal complaint filed with the Office of the City Manager on July 21 — a record of complaints that Riddle claims other local businesses with drag performances have not generated.
According to Riddle, Port 251 is currently being investigated concerning its adherence to two city ordinances: the maximum noise levels ordinance — §189-4 — which limits how much sound an individual or business can emit beyond private property; and the use restrictions ordinance — §270-19 — which prevents live entertainment on dining patios. Maggio noted he believes that the venue is now in compliance with the maximum noise level ordinance.
Riddle added that, with the visible presence of officers during the Friday and Sunday performances, the dispatch office has received “no associated noise complaints” from the local community. However, according to Riddle, the first time officers were not present — last Friday — a noise complaint was received.
“Our objective is not enforcement, but rather compliance,” Riddle said. “If our presence is the mechanism needed to achieve compliance then that is our obligation to the community.”
Regardless, for Port 251 the ongoing presence of police officers “sitting outside for the entire show” during drag events has affected the experience of patrons and performers alike, Sacco added.
“Patrons feel uncomfortable, some get up and leave,” he explained. “It’s unfortunate because we’re just trying to make a living. But, even more so, the drag queens are just trying to make a living and they’re feeling targeted.”
But Riddle maintained that the nature of the event is “irrelevant” to the agency’s response.
“The members of our agency serve our residents, businesses, and visitors alike by responding to calls for service and through proactive police work,” Riddle said. “When presented with a concern from a member of our community it is our obligation and duty to thoroughly investigate and assess the concern.”