Clubs struggle to meld safety and nightlife

A rise in violence - and high-profile cases like that of 'Puffy' Combs - has nightclubs upping security.

A block from the buzzing neon lights of Times Square stands a plain, nondescript doorway. Outside it plays a scene familiar to nightclubs across America: Square-shouldered men in jackets stand guard at velvet ropes, screening patrons as they wait to enter the smoky, pulsating den of music.

Increasingly, though, concerns are rising that clubs' security measures are not up to the task of controlling today's crowds. A recent spate of violence at nightclubs in several US cities - coupled with high-profile club shootings last year involving celebrities such as rap artist Sean "Puffy" Combs - points to a venue struggling to define good fun amid a music scene that glamorizes vulgarity and brutality.

"[Security at] the club scene really hasn't been evolving with the times," says Chris McGoey, a San Francisco-based security consultant.

Security experts cite several reasons for the apparent rise in nightclub violence, including some nightclubs' reluctance to summon police at the first sign of trouble - often out of concern officers will shut the club down. But an even larger factor, say many experts, is the growing prevalence of music genres - such as elements of hip hop - that critics claim create a culture of violence.

"Music has a tremendous psychological impact on people. When you put them in large numbers, it can encourage attitudes of an aggressive nature," says David Hollingworth, a nightclub consultant since 1995. Owners should pay heed to what music is played in their clubs, because it will dictate the mood, he adds.

Statistics for nightclub-related crime are not known, but recent shootings and assaults are leading some club owners and city officials to ask whether violence is on the rise.

*In Los Angeles last week, two separate shootings at nightclubs left one woman dead and nine others injured.

*At the end of January, a man was killed and seven others wounded at the Jetaway Lounge in Newark, N.J.

*Also last month, a man was charged with aggravated battery after one man died and another was injured in a shooting outside an Olathe, Kan., nightclub.

*On New Year's Day, a computer programmer was stabbed to death on the dance floor at the Palace in Boston.

The latest of these reports coincide with the trial of Mr. Combs here in New York. The music producer and rap artist is charged with bribery and illegal gun possession in connection with a December 1999 shootout at Club New York. His protege and member of his entourage that night, Jamal "Shyne" Barrow, is charged with attempted murder. Three people were injured during the incident.

Other celebrities have had trouble at nightclubs. Last week, rapper Eminem pleaded guilty to carrying a concealed weapon after an altercation at a Detroit nightclub. Last year, NFL linebacker Ray Lewis was charged in the fatal stabbings at a nightclub in Atlanta. He later pleaded guilty to obstructing justice.

Inside Club New York, which packs in as many as 1,000 people on a weekend night, hip hop is still the music of choice. But manager Eric Funk, who watches several security cameras in his office at the back of the club, sees a distinction between hip hop music and hip hop culture - and says his staff can control the influence of the latter.

"It's all about music, comfort, and the right staff," he says. Mixing hip hop with reggae and other music has helped to minimize incidents, as have security measures such as a dress code and frisking patrons as they enter, he adds.

Experts agree that a trained staff is the most effective deterrent to nightclub violence - and today that means much more than posting burly men at the door.

"Security is no longer a game of busting heads," says Mr. Hollingworth, also of website nightclubbiz.com. "You do that now, and you're going to be sued. Intimidation is no longer a viable deterrent."

At Club New York, security personnel linked to a two-frequency radio were stationed throughout the club, in doorways and in front of restrooms.

In an effort to make clubs safe for patrons, more than 1 million people nationwide, including bartenders and security personnel, have learned such techniques from Training for Intervention Procedures (TIPS).

"We offer a crash course in alcohol sales and service from a responsibility side," says Scott Bailey, TIPS vice president of sales and marketing.

Part of that training is knowing when to call the police. Indeed, some clubs have found that violence has decreased as the police presence increased. A club in Mt. Clemens, Mich., for example, hired city police officers to work at the club during their off-duty hours. Last month, three people were arrested at the club, compared with 35 arrests for November and December before the heightened police presence, says Lt. Brian Krutell of the Mt. Clemens detective squad.

But others still think twice before calling the cops. In San Francisco, a mother has filed a wrongful-death suit against Club Universe, claiming the staff failed to call police after her son suffered a heart attack while at the club last February. The suit alleges the club suspected he had overdosed on drugs, and did not call an ambulance for fear of police action.

Leslie Ayers of San Francisco Late Night Coalition, a group of citizens, DJs, and record producers, says the system may indeed deter clubs from calling police during emergencies. Local police had been collecting information on crimes committed near clubs and using it to shut certain clubs down, says Ms. Ayers. "Penalizing a club for calling 911 makes people think twice about calling 911," she says.

In New York, police report any incident to the New York State Liquor Authority, says NYSLA spokeswoman Maris Hart. With more than 25,000 licensees statewide - including bars, hotels, and restaurants - the agency might take weeks to review a report, she says.

Mr. Funk of Club New York says the establishment has a good relationship with police. "When Barrow ran from the club that night," he says, "he ran right into two officers who were just outside."

Although Funk describes the shooting there as "a freak incident," the question of the concealed weapons remains. Asked if Combs and his entourage had been frisked that night, Funk says, "This is not an airport. I can only go so far."

Others remain unconvinced that the rules apply to celebrities. Rob Matthews, a bartender at another New York nightclub, says he's not sure how he would have dealt with the Combs situation.

"I can understand why they wouldn't want to disrespect Puffy by frisking him," he says. "It could happen again tonight, even at a place that has security."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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