Security for Bars, Taverns, Lounges and Nightclubs
by Ralph Witherspoon, CPP, CSC
The goal of most bars, taverns, lounges and nightclubs is to provide a hospitable gathering place where patrons can have a good time, often by listening to or watching entertainment, and/or dancing, while purchasing and consuming the establishment's primary product — alcoholic beverages. However, it is the latter item, the consumption of alcoholic beverages that tends to lessen or remove inhibitions in many people, which is frequent cause of problems and, increasingly, litigation for bar and club operators.
While applicable to all types of establishments as their circumstances and clientele dictate, this article is targeted toward mid and larger sized bars and nightclubs, including dance clubs and adult entertainment establishments, such as "gentleman's clubs".
Some establishments have a history of fights or violence. These taverns or clubs are often those that cater to a younger, more risk prone crowd. Trendy nightclubs, especially on weekends, may have long lines of young persons eager to get into the current "hot spot". Some bars and nightclubs located near colleges and universities attract young (and frequently underage) people, who then often engage in “binge drinking” or other risky behavior. The playing of some pop music, (often involving a pounding beat), especially by a live band or DJ, may also be a risk factor since it frequently creates an atmosphere of intense physical activity, sometimes even reckless abandon. A flashing strobe light, laser show, or similar “enhancements” may also heighten the atmosphere, and the establishment's risk!
What are your establishment's risks (in dollars) for criminal (assault and battery) or negligent (liquor liability - underage and/or over service) acts by your employees, or acts occurring on your property? or, your direct costs/loss for such acts? or, litigation costs? or, loss of your club's reputation and customers?
Many establishments require security personnel and sometimes security equipment. In many urban nightclubs catering to young adult crowds, it is becoming increasingly common to use metal detectors at the doors to prevent the introduction of knives and guns, as some patrons seek to bring outside conflicts (and violence) into the club.
Some cities such as New York now have laws, ordinances or “guidelines” as to what minimum security measures or equipment bars and nightclubs should or must provide For the vast majority of cities and counties that do not mandate such requirements, the nationalstandard for these establishments is “reasonable care” based on the nature and location of each individual establishment, and, the reasonably foreseeable risks each establishment faces.
Every establishment's management has a general responsibility to use reasonable measures to provide a safe environment for its guests/customers (invitees), plus its employees, vendors, etc. That responsibility usually includes the club's parking lot, and in some cases, based on local law or ordinance, the sidewalks and other areas immediately adjacent to the bar or club, which are routinely used by its guests.
Management decides which type customers it will attract based on the club's location, the atmosphere and music format it provides, plus its advertising. Promotions of "two-for-one" drinks, $ .75 "jello shots", or large over-sized drinks, or promoting a three or four-hour long "happy hour", also set a tone and attract specific types of patrons. That "tone" will also often determine what type problems are likely to arise, and what type and level of security should be provided. Management can, at any time, change the "tone" by changing the music, adding or changing the amount of (any) door cover charge, increasing or relaxing its dress code, changing décor and lighting, changing or eliminating specials, increasing "visible" security, or taking other appropriate measures.
First, The Plan
Reliable security to deter customer altercations, and to intervene if deterrence fails, is essential in the bar and nightclub industry. Tavern and nightclub management should first identify and assess the risks to their particular establishment, including any violence during the last few years at the club, and to a lesser extent the the violent crime history in their immediate neighborhood and at any nearby bars or clubs. Management should then develop its security plan based on the type of customers they attract, plus the known or likely risks or problems. A key factor is knowing your guests/patrons - who are you attracting. Your plan doesn't always have to be elaborate, or even, in the case of small establishments with only one or two employees, written. However, written is always preferred, especially for training, continuity and documentation purposes.
Once the potential problems and risks are identified, countermeasures (policies, procedures, personnel and equipment) can be developed and club personnel trained in their implementation. Owners and managers should take care to staff their establishment with responsible, trained employees in all positions.The security plan should be reviewed at least annually, or more often if problems are occurring, to determine whether any changes in the club's security plan are needed. The plan should also ensure adequate insurance coverage,specifically including alcohol (Dram Shop) and assault and battery claims. Most importantly, all staff, especially security, should be trained (with the training documented) so that they understand the goals, policies and procedures of the establishment. Employees implement policies and procedures, with direction, guidance and supervision by management.
The Door Host
The first line of defense for many nightclubs is a Door Host. Stationed at the entry door(s), the Door Host (who, regardless of title, is also a Security Person, or "SP") keeps order at the entrance, and checks IDs to ensure that people seeking entrance have a valid government issued photo ID, and are of legal age. They also deny entry to persons who are visibly intoxicated, or don’t meet the club’s dress code, or who are known to have previously caused problems, and/or been barred by management. Club rules and dress code should be prominently displayed in writing at the entry doors, and at the beginning of any rope-line. Tact, excellent communication skills, and a sense of humor and fairness are important traits to look for in hiring Door Hosts, and outside Linemen (who are also SPs), who patrol and maintain order in any outside waiting "rope-lines". Because they are the first contact with potential patrons and set the tone for each person's visit, selecting these Door Hosts and SPs is critical for a good operation.
Arriving guests can be screened by Linemen for dress code compliance (it is better to identify dress problems when the potential guest first arrives outside, rather than after they have been waiting in line for a half or full hour), and, if they appear under the age of 35, conduct a preliminary ID check. Arriving guests can be briefly “interviewed” by Linemen while standing in line: “How are you doing this evening?” and “May I see your Driver’s License please?” are common, casual questions, the answers to which help the Linemen judge the potential patron’s sobriety and attitude. A slurred or growled “None of your business” or similar response, or an unsteady balance, are a yellow flag about possible problems from that person. Visible intoxication is not only prohibited in most states, but is a red warning flag even if not prohibited in your state, and should cause the potential patron to be turned away.
At the door the Doorman has the final responsibility for checking/verifying every drivers license (or other acceptable I.D), and while verbally greeting the guest, evaluating their sobriety and attitude. It is much easier to keep trouble out - than it is to break up a fight and eject those involved, or, to respond to a lawsuit charging your establishment having caused the intoxication. Accordingly, all security personnel should be trained in the same alcohol service training as the bartenders and servers. That training should be documented.
Unfortunately, the presence of guns, knives and other weapons is increasing in clubs around the country. Where specific security screening or searching is used, that should take place immediately behind the Doorman (inside the exterior doors). A body "frisk" or "pat down" is insufficient, as patrons are seldom, if ever, physically patted below the waist where many weapons are concealed. A metal detector (hand-held or walk-through depending on the volume of patrons) is recommended, along with documented training (and re-training) of both management and security personnel in its calibration and proper use. As a part of the door team, a female SP is recommended to search purses, and frisk females who set off the metal detector.
Note that these two functions, Door Persons and Linemen, plus any weapons screening, are separate from any other personnel used to collect money, check coats, or perform other functions at the entrance door(s).
Bartenders and Servers
The second line of defense for any establishment is its bartenders and servers. Each should be trained (with the training documented) to identify patrons who are visibly becoming intoxicated, or becoming loud, obnoxious, or "looking for trouble." Even if not mandated by your state, they should also be trained in basic non-confrontational methods to reduce, or to cut such people off from further drinking. Condoning the continued presence of visibly intoxicated persons, or turning them loose to drive on the streets is a likely recipe for disaster. Training for these personnel (which is available from several organizations such as TAM - Techniques for AlcoholManagement, or TIPS - Training on Intervention Techniques is available in various forms including any state mandated training. Involved staff should, as appropriate, alert other servers, bartenders, security and management of any developing situation.
The next and final line of defense for most establishments is the inside security personnel (Floor men or Floor Hosts), often referred to as "bouncers." The term "bouncers" presents an image of an untrained, physically large ex-football player or wrestler who handles drunk or unruly patrons by physically grabbing them and tossing them out the door. Unfortunately, this image is all too often real in some establishments. The actions of these often unscreened and untrained employees are what frequently give rise to subsequent injuries, deaths, lawsuits, negative publicity, and may jeopardize club licenses.
The true job of inside SPs is to deter patrons from becoming unruly. They do so by their visible presence, alertness and interaction with guests and staff, and observing and assessing all that goes on within their sight and hearing, plus their verbal and/or physical intervention if necessary. Deterrence and prevention first! Patrons should be able to have a good time, but, within established limits set by the club. To do this, security employees should be carefully screened for clear criminal backgrounds, especially any arrests or incidents involving assaults, along with maturity, good judgment, and the ability to talk with customers without appearing threatening or intimidating. In the event of a serious incident, failure to have done this may well result in additional charges in a lawsuit of negligent hiring or negligent retention. SPs and Doormen should have specific written policies and guidelines as to exactly what action(s) management wants them to take, or not take, and what authority management gives them in the absence of a manager. They should then be trained in those duties, and their individual training documented. Their duties should be limited to "security" type duties so that they do not become distracted, or find themselves elsewhere cleaning tables or floors, or performing other non-security duties such as "bar back", when a security problem arises. Note: To reduce the presence of potential weapons to fighters, I recommend the use of as little glass as possible. Management should consider using plastic or polycarbonate type type glasses, mugs, and pitchers. If smoking is permitted, don't use glass ashtrays.
How many? No two clubs are exactly alike. What are your patron demographics - a large hip-hop club with 400-500 patrons in one room will require different security than if the the same number of patrons were divided throughout three or four rooms, or on two or three floors, or if your patron demographics and music were different. One "rule of thumb" which I frequently recommend is one SP Floor man for each anticipated 50-75 patrons, depending on the "security history" of the establishment, its layout, or its nature, e.g., an Adult Entertainment / Gentleman's Club, because the nudity coupled with the alcohol , will usually require a higher ratio of SPs to patrons. (Note: New York City’s guidelines for all bars specify one SP for each 75 patrons, plus, one security supervisor for each five SPs. Other requirements from state, county or local government agencies, including those contained in any Conditional Use Permits [CUP] which set minimum staffing and other requirements. DON'T fall below any such requirements - it may cost you your livelihood. Generally, I don't recommend rigid ratios. If unsure how many patrons are expected, management should base the number of Floormen on the club's occupancy or fire-code limits (which includes everyone inside - staff, patrons and bands). It's always better to over-staff security somewhat, then reduce it during the night if not needed, than it is to be caught short in the middle or at the end of the night. On an anticipated "heavy" night "weekends or special events", especially if there has been a history of recent problems, the number of security should possibly be increased. Also, consider alerting alert your local law enforcement about the event if you anticipate a large or over-flowing crowd. They appreciate the heads-up.
Also Note: In many clubs it is often wise to use one or two female SPs on the floors, as women can frequently verbally defuse a non-violent situation that a male SP would possibly only escalate.
Sometimes ,club layouts will require additional SPs to cover hallways and stairways adjacent to men's and women's restrooms, or other isolated areas where crowds may gather and other trouble or assaults occur. These SPs should be in addition to the SPs scheduled for use at
the door and on the floor(s).
Management sets the tone and atmosphere of any club. Within that environment, SPs accomplish their jobs by first being highly visible to all present. They sometimes wear a security–type uniform, or, I recommend management consider a brightly colored red, black or yellow collared ("golf" or "polo" type) shirt or jacket, and dark slacks. Such shirts or jackets with collars should bear the word "Security" on the front above the left breast, and on the back in large white, red or black letters, as appropriate. In any case, they should be highly visible and not confused with any shirts or uniforms that servers or other club personnel wear. Some clubs have attempted to "up-scale" their club image and security attire by using tuxedos, or dark blue or black suits. This may work with the Door Host(s) and Linemen - however, other SPs wearing only a name tag stating "Security" on a tux or suit are not easily identifiable in an altercation - and can become just another body in the fight. I recommend management carefully consider this issue before using this approach.
The highly visible presence of SPs as they circulate throughout the club (or sometimes in fixed positions), reminds patrons that their conduct is being scrutinized. Where more than three or four SPs are used, or in clubs that frequently become very loud or crowded, security personnel should be in radio communication with each other, the Doorman, MOD and GM, using radios with an ear speaker and a lapel or boom microphone. This will enable security and management personnel to hear in a crowded and noisy environment. An additional option, depending on size and layout, one or more SPs in elevated "pulpits" (or movable stands 12-18" high) often in the room corners, or on a raised stage or bandstand, where they can see over the heads of dancers and walkers, and quickly identify disturbances starting.
If establishment rules are being violated, SPs should immediately discreetly and politely explain the rule to the violator(s), and then promptly enforce the rule. Don't wait, however, hoping the problem will go away. Again, good communication skills are important when management is hiring SPs. Usually this "warning" is all that is needed to effect compliance. Depending on your club's policy, where an initial warning doesn't do the job, a second, less-friendly but still courteous warning should be issued, usually by a manager accompanied by one or more SPs. Other clubs however, use a "Second Strike - they are OUT" policy.
Sometimes visible presence, rule enforcement and warnings aren't enough and, for the safety of staff and customers alike, an unruly patron must be ejected. Whenever possible, two or more SPs should be present (the rule of thumb is to have, wherever possible, two SPs immediately present for each person being asked to leave), but don't leave the rest of the club uncovered! That is another reason why adequate staffing each night is so important.
Escorting a non-violent patron out of a club involves first explaining why the person is being asked to leave, then verbally requesting that they comply. If the customer has previously been warned, they already know why they are being asked to leave, but explain it briefly again. If treated courteously, many will leave without problem. If the customer hasn't been violent or overly loud and aggressive, or is not refusing to leave, they should be given a moment or two to collect themselves and perhaps take one last drag on a cigarette (if legal). Don't, however, permit any continued alcohol drinking. Remember - rushing things at this point can exacerbate the situation as the customer tries to regain his or her dignity (or self-esteem) by demonstrating that "no one is going to throw them out." An unnecessary fight frequently results.
Use by SPs of chemical weapons such as mace or pepper spray, or weapons such as "saps", clubs, large heavy flashlights or handcuffs, should be strictly prohibited by management. This is especially true in larger more crowded clubs, where nearby patrons may be sprayed or affected by chemical spray use. Panic, injury and even death may result! I do not recommend them.
When a cover charge has been collected for entry, a dispute sometimes arises with the patron(s) being ejected. It is usually wise to have management refund the cover charge in an effort to get the patron(s) to peacefully leave, rather than risk a verbal confrontation that can quickly evolve into a physical fight and injuries … all over a few dollars. In many cases, patrons being ejected are barred from returning for a set period of time, or sometimes "banned" permanently. If the person has been engaged in a physical fight or physically resisted removal, I strongly recommend they be permanently banned, forever! If you don't, and they return at some future time and cause damage or injury, your establishment may be sued using the argument you knew the person was violent, and you let him/her come back. Don’t make the mistake of letting that trouble in twice!
Use of Force
First check with your attorney as to what you local or state laws permit!!
In escorting a patron out, blocking movements by the security officers using their body, and (if necessary) light touching to guide, direct, or even support an unsteady person may be permitted in some circumstances, but no greater force should ever be used except in self-defense, or in bringing a resistant patron under contol, or in protecting themselves or some other person(s) against what the SPs objectively and reasonably believe to be an imminent threat of death or serious bodily harm. Primary control should be by verbal commands plus, the presence of more security personnel than the number of person(s) that are being removed or being brought under control. Absent a criminal act (such as physical assault against others) by the individual(s) being removed, or their physical resistance to being removed, your employees grabbing or tackling them,usually constitutes an assault. Only "reasonable force" sufficient to hold, restrain or remove an attacker, or overcome an attacker’s use of force by your personnel in defending others is legally authorized in most jurisdictions. Such force should not be greater than the force being used by the attacker. The key word is "reasonable," as in "reasonable to a judge or jury". Any greater force than the attacker is using could subject you, and your personnel, to criminal charges of assault and battery, and possibly civil charges against both the individuals and the establishment. In most cases a "bear hug" of the fighter around his upper arms to restrain and then, with a second SP, remove him out the door will be all that is necessary, and can be usually be easily defended. However, kicking, chocking, wrist-locks and pain compliance holds are usually beyond what can explained and defended as "reasonable." Obviously, however, SPs defending against a serious or deadly attack involving knives, guns, clubs or other weapons, or multiple attackers posing serious risk of great bodily harm to a guest or employee is an exception to this general injunction, and security and other personnel should do what is reasonable to protect themselves, your guests/invitees and employees from such assaults, and to control the assailant(s).
Verbal abuse of SPs or management by patrons is usually not against the law, and should be considered part of their job. Physical force, however, should never be used against a patron who has used only words. People's actions, not their words, are the key!
When two patrons are being ejected for fighting with each other, the more aggressive patron should be ejected first. Only after he or she has been observed by security or management to physically leave the property and immediate area, not just the building, should the second person then be ejected, if possible through a separate door. Throwing both combatants out the same door together or into the same parking lot to let them "duke it out" is inappropriate, and just asking for trouble. Note: New York Police Department's Best Practices Plan for bars and clubs also recommends this, e.g. "Establishment policy should mandate that security separate and remove all potentially violent persons in a manner, consistent with the law, that is designed to prevent a continuation of violent activity inside or outside the club." (emphasis added).
Ejected persons should be warned that having been told to leave, if they remain on the club's property they will be trespassing and the police will be called. If they don't immediately leave - the police should be called! A detailed written report should be prepared by all employees involved immediately after any physical altercation occurs, but no later than the end of the shift or night. Management should review the written reports of the incident and their employee's actions within 48 hours to determine what changes, if any, should be considered. Reports should be kept on file by management for at least one year, or for the statutory time in your state for filing lawsuits (check with your attorney). Also, if a patron physically resists removal by club security, the police should be called and the patron removed and arrested for trespass and/or assault and battery. On-duty management, however, will have to make the decision to criminally prosecute the individuals before the police are called, unless the situation is so serious that immediate police presence to quell the disturbance is necessary.
It should go without saying that if a patron, even an intoxicated, obnoxious and combative patron is injured, they should be offered medical attention, usually by calling EMS or an ambulance. If the person is unconscious, medical help should always be called for them. Never eject a visibly injured person from your establishment without first offering to help them obtain medical treatment. Even if your offer is rejected, it may still be appropriate to try to get a signed waiver from the person, or to call EMS and let the injured patron personally decline their services. This is a case-by-case management decision, or a policy set by management. A written report should be prepared in all such cases, especially if an injured person refuses medical attention.
Outside the Club
Security employees should monitor the club's parking lot(s) or those close by and routinely used by the club's patrons, starting at least 30 minutes before closing time, and continuing until all patrons and employees have left. This is especially critical if there have been prior incidents in your parking lot. In many cases arguments or fights will start outside the club among patrons who are leaving. Sometimes past activity will dictate that security monitor the parking lot(s) or adjacent sidewalks the entire time the club is open with one or more patrolling officers. Or, the use of continuously monitored digital Closed Circuit Television (CCTV) cameras making digital hard drive recordings (color is preferred) is an alternative. Retaining all "video" for at least thirty days is a good practice. The same goes for recording activity at the doors and inside the club. If an incident occurs, I recommend copying the entire incident, plus at least 30 minutes before and after the incident onto a DVD disc and retaining it for at least a year. Again, consult with your attorney.
Incidents sometimes may erupt outside the club but still on the club's property. The visible presence of security personnel, and/or signage warning of CCTV surveillance of the parking lot (and inside the club) may deter some of it, or record what occurs. (Note: Never use dummy CCTV cameras or false or misleading signage about CCTV use which customers or others may rely on to their determent). If not deterred, security is then in a position to call the police and intervene to protect innocent patrons as appropriate and/or directed by management. If persons are injured, CCTV recordings from inside and outside cameras will possibly assist the police and could help in defending the club and its employees against any claims. Keep copies of any incidents for at least one year, or as advised by your attorney or insurance company.
While lawsuits and bad publicity concerning security at nightclubs are on the rise throughout the country, they don't have to be. Establishments that use the guidelines described here can significantly reduce (but not totally eliminate) their exposure to such lawsuits and negative publicity. These guidelines and suggestions are not intended to provide the reader with a complete security program for their specific establishment. Rather, they are a starting point, and provide basic security considerations derived from what the author believes are well-accepted security principles, and the "best practices" of numerous bars and clubs.
It should be remembered that each establishment differs in its size, layout, clientele, and specific risks, and that the clientele and risks may change over time, sometimes a very short time. Always consult with your attorney. Another good idea: Contact a professional bar and nightclub security consultant for assistance in developing your establishment's security program.
Readers desiring additional information on these or related subjects should contact a qualified professional security consultant and/or their attorney.
Based on what the author believes are generally accepted security principles as of the date of its writing, and on data gathered from what are believed to be reliable sources, this article is written for general information purposes only and is not intended to be, and should not be used as a primary source for making security decisions. Each situation is or can be unique. NOTE: State laws and local ordinances vary and may impact or negate the general advice offered here. Always consult with your attorney if in any doubt. The author is not an attorney, is not engaged in the practice of law, and is not rendering legal advice. Readers requiring advice about specific security problems or concerns should consult directly with a security professional versed and experienced in bar and nightclub security, or with their attorney. The author of this article and/or Witherspoon Security Consulting, Inc. shall have no liability to any person or entity with respect to any loss, liability, or damage alleged to have been caused by the use or application of any information in this article, nor information contained on this or any linked or related web site.