Article By: Ken Sternberg
Anyone holding a license to serve alcohol in Massachusetts may soon face tougher and more costly regulatory requirements. A home rule petition now pending in the state legislature would require all licensees to run criminal background checks on all employees involved with admitting patrons. This includes door staff and anyone else who screens customer driver's licenses or other IDs. Although the venues most affected would likely be crowded nightclubs and bars, which earn most of their income through alcohol sales, the proposal's language includes security staff, doormen, floor staff, or others who perform duties related to admitting patrons or maintaining order and safety at any establishment licensed to serve alcoholic beverages. Any licensee that accrues three or more reported incidents of assault and battery by an employee on a patron must have its staff trained by an independent, third-party company. Over the past 18 months there have been a few highly publicized incidents involving bouncers and bar staff committing violence against customers. The most infamous case is probably that of Darryl Littlejohn, a bouncer accused of murdering a New York graduate student from Massachusetts in 2OO6 after she stopped in at the New York City club in which he worked. An ex-con with a lengthy criminal background, his employment at the bar was a violation of his parole. In a separate incident, another Manhattan bouncer, Stephen Sakai, was charged with shooting four patrons, one of whom died.
As far and few between as such grave incidents are, these high profile cases caught the attention of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino and Boston City Councilman Michael Flaherty. It was Flaherty who drew up the home rule petition earlier this year. He and Menino now want Boston licensees to adopt more stringent personnel checks and training. State Representative Jamie Murphy picked up Flaherty's proposal for a possible statewide measure. If approved, the Boston Licensing Board would be responsible for implementing the regulations. "I don't think owners make a lot of mistakes. Employees don't always understand. Rather than de-escalate the issue, they get into an argument. What you want to do is to get away from an aggressive situation," explains James Staples, a partner with Guest Intervention Strategies, a Boston-based security personnel training company. During the company's six hour course, Staples shares his knowledge of liquor laws and enforcement, helping participants understand and comply with a confusing matrix of legal requirements. He served for 17 years with the Massachusetts Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which included 15 years as the supervising investigator responsible for training field investigators, developing and implementing enforcement operations and prosecuting cases. Staples also was a police officer in Boxboro, MA.
"We go through all the procedures for fire codes, overcrowding and public safety issues to show them what to look for, as well as what the law permits you to do and what it doesn't," Staples says. The program also teaches participants how to deal with aggressive patrons to prevent bad situations from developing. Many liability issues stem from employees not knowing how to deal tactfully with aggressive or annoying patrons. The only thing training can do is help you," he notes. If owners can document employee training procedures, furnish a log of how past situations were handled and prove their employees received professional third party training, their chances of a positive legal outcome improve greatly, he suggests.
The physical and self-defense aspects of training courses at Guest Intervention Strategies are taught by another partner, David Boyle, a martial arts expert and a vice president at Martignetti Companies, which gives him some insight into the world of bars and clubs. He also owns two security companies and was involved in handling security at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. "No one takes a self-defense course until after they've been mugged. A lot of our clients come to us after they've been cited by authorities or a neighboring bar has been cited," Boyle says. "If someone comes within two feet of you, you have to respond. Do you take a step back or do you push them? I teach people how to grab and control in a way that doesn't use excessive force. You can't snap and break a guy's arm," he says, observing how most patrons have a cell phone with a built-in camera and will probably photograph any violence. His classes and those of other trainers include mock situations so participants can practice their new skills under careful supervision. If you're prepared, you don't react from emotion, he remarks. It is against the law for bar staff to touch patrons, but if someone threatens you or another patron, you can act to prevent injury because at that point, it's self defense, Boyle explains. "In seven-plus years, I've never had a lawsuit or a criminal case filed against me," he says, adding: "Good training outweighs good instinct."
"The incident in New York started a lot of stuff. People are happy to sue and the numbers have gotten a lot bigger in terms of the number of claims," says Brian Jacobs, owner of Security Liability Reduction Associates in Boston. He mainly trains nightclub security staff, as well as staff at entertainment venues, and focuses on preventing liquor liability issues. "Depending on the owner, many clients come to us. Sometimes they want to be proactive, sometimes they've had a slew of violations," he describes. "State and city officials are coming down hard on clubs. That means that it's time for nightclub security to evolve," he says, noting, "Everything's gotten a little more corporate and professional. Door staff are not just big thugs, but intelligent people who know how to handle a situation." Instead of reacting with customers on an emotional level, the focus of Jacobs's program is to show clients how to verbally defuse a situation. This also includes stopping trouble at the door, he stresses, by spotting fake IDs, inebriated patrons and other red flags.
Jacobs started his training program about two years ago in conjunction with the Liquor Liability Joint Underwriting Association of Massachusetts. This is the insurer of last resort for alcohol licensees in the state. The company insures about 2OOO license holders, which represents about 15 to 2O percent of the total market, according to President and CEO John Tympanick. "Almost half of our claims come from assault and battery, and of that, 25 percent of these involve security personnel. We needed to do something about this," he remarks, adding, "There weren't any organized training programs in the country. It made sense to promote this. I can only assume that with certified security personnel, you are gong to have fewer incidents." Once he was satisfied Jacobs's program met a high enough standard, Tympanick began offering incentives to persuade licensees to have their staff take the course. This includes a 5O percent discount to the general liability assault and battery annual premium, which he says to a Boston bar could mean about $25OO. Another incentive is that the insurance firm reimburses owners up to $75 for each employee they enroll in the course, making the approximately $225 enrollment fee easier to take. Still, not everyone sees a desperate need for independent training.
"We're all for training. The industry does a fantastic job of training now," says Peter Christie, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Restaurant Association. "The vast majority of nightclubs in Boston are in the business of taking care of their customers. All of them are training internally every bit as good as third party trainers. They need to continue training," he says. The home rule petition "is being championed by insurance companies and a couple of people who have recognized the niche and started little training businesses," he claims. "Who's to say they're better than the firm with 2O years of experience who's been doing the same job?"
Christie questions what licensees would do if, for example, one of their certified security staff calls in sick and a non-third party trained staffer is available to fill in. Would this be illegal? And as for criminal record background checks, the CORI system available in Massachusetts has a 6O day waiting list, he says. "Can you wait 6O days to hire a job applicant?" he asks, adding, "So many of these laws are well-intended, but they would make it unlawful to have someone at the door who doesn't have this [third party] training." Commenting on the state's restaurant and bar owners, Christie says: "These people realize what they have to lose. These people are business people, many who run multimillion dollar establishments. They don't want any incidents." Some proponents of third-party training argue that ServSafe and TIPS training programs are conducted mostly by outside contractors, and see little difference in third-party training for security issues. Officials of some towns agree. Newburyport, for example, recently hired Guest Intervention Strategies to train all licensees there. Bourne and Dedham have also contacted the company, adds Staples.
Perhaps a proposal that mandates training was inevitable in Massachusetts, given recent events and the rising costs of lawsuits and insurance. Further hearings between legislators and business owners are planned later this year so licensees can discuss how the measure would affect them, and changes, if any, can be made to the proposal. Regardless of the outcome, today's lucrative, security-conscious environment seems primed to attract qualified companies to step in so they can do well while doing good.