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30th September 2013

Bouncers: an unchecked menace or preservers of the peace?

Joe Anthony questions what role door and security staff have to play in keeping nights out safe.

Courage can evaporate from even the toughest bartender  when they find themselves informing a customer who looks like a more sinister version of Bane that he’s had a Jaeger-bomb too many. Clearly, trying to evict a rowdy, inebriated group of steroid junkies celebrating their friend’s prison release is a traumatising ordeal for any member of staff at your average bar. Yet all these stresses melt away when the establishment in question has doormen. Knowing that you have a blank cheque of physicality backing you up turns what would otherwise be a perilously stressful shift into a relatively harmonious experience.

In recent weeks, many people across the country will have felt a softening of their antagonism towards private security staff after watching Channel Four’s new documentary ‘Bouncers’, as the show strives to humanise the men and women who guard our Friday night. How can one help but like ‘Gordon’, our protagonist, as he soulfully reflects on the nuances of his profession. At one point we listen as he waxes lyrical about how security staff are ‘a counsellor, social worker, philosopher, friend, enemy, sometimes just a shoulder to cry on – it’s all rolled into one’.

Bouncers inhabit a strange legal and ethical grey area in modern life. They have a monopoly on violence within their immediate jurisdiction. Theirs is one of the only professions that are legally sanctioned to make physical contact with members of the public, yet they are far from police officers in both rights and responsibilities. To govern this precarious scenario the government made it obligatory for all bouncers to get an official licence for which training is required. Currently in the UK, police officers receive two years probationary training before being deployed to the streets. To become a bouncer on the other hand is a lot less strenuous. In some cases, if you have three days spare and £200, the licence is yours for three years – hardly a rigorous selection process.

The hegemonic position these men and women find themselves in can often lead to what a casual observer might call a ‘god-complex’. With a legal right to use physical force, full backing of both the police and club owners and no system of oversight, club bouncers represent a powerful force in the average person’s night out. Throw into the mix the fact that a bouncer can ruin someone’s plans on a whim, plans for which the customer may already have invested time and money and we find a situation where Britain’s doormen enjoy an almost overbearing level of power.

This may all seem banal and petty until the consequences of this system take on far graver dimensions. A Manchester court found last year that the death of Julian Webster, 24, outside a Deansgate nightclub, was the result of the effects of the bouncer’s ‘chin-lock restraint technique’ combined with pre-existing medical issues. The restraint technique was not in itself illegal and used after Mr Webster acted in a way that was ‘deemed to be threatening’, resulting in no prosecutions being sought.

It is therefore not difficult to understand why bouncers have such a low reputation among student circles. Many of those who do go out have a story of abuse suffered at the hands of doormen; be it racial slurs, sexual harassment and physical altercations. Of course clouded by the haze of alcohol, the customer’s judgement is rarely astute, their sensitivities at pubescent levels and their manners only vaguely present. So perhaps confrontation is merely the inevitable result when two groups with antithetical interests and objectives collide.

It is important to remember that it is the general public that have created the demand for bouncers. We as a society have adopted an incredibly unhealthy ‘weekend warrior’ culture. One only needs to walk through any student halls to hear cheers of ‘down it fresher’ echoing ominously off the walls. Fuelled by cheap drink offers and social acceptance of extreme drunkenness, the British now drink ‘as regularly as Mediterraneans but binge like Scandinavians’ according to The Economist, resulting in a perfect storm of inebriation. Our high streets have got to the point where Sunderland City Council employ bouncers to guard taxi queues, Southend are making club doormen mandatory whilst Stoke on Trent ordered an OAP charity event to employ door staff for its ‘Goldenhill Sing-Song’.  Many of these jobs were formally the reserve of the police, but come kicking out time the official keepers of the peace are stretched to the limit. So business owners, the council and the police all turn to private security to help keep a lid on the potential chaos that is the typical British high street.

This article should not be read as an assault on the private security profession. The overwhelming majority of bouncers across the country are invariably decent, law-abiding citizens who perform an incredibly demanding job under tough conditions. Though they may appear to be the supreme enforcer of arbitrary rules they provide an essential service, made inevitable by our actions. It is just a pity so many do their job with such disdain for the customer.

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