Now What? Club Bouncers on the Front Lines in Dangerous Times 'Isn't Really Enough in the Modern World'

On the evening of June 15, three days after Omar Mateen killed 49 people and wounded 53 others at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla., the New York Police Department was investigating handwritten letters left on the windshields of parked cars in Hell’s Kitchen, a neighborhood on Manhattan’s West Side with a high concentration of LGBT residents.

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“Those homosexuals, sexual pervert, sexual impotents -- trash, garbage, socio-economic drop out -- bartenders -- cooks -- trash -- you will be corpes [sic],” one of the 10 letters read.

Five blocks away from the investigation, security guard Aaron Andre stood at his usual post outside Atlas Social Club, a gay bar that is co-owned by Anderson Cooper’s partner Benjamin Maisani. Andre, a 30-year veteran of nightclub security, looks like a Marine, broad and strong, with intelligent hyper-alert eyes used to making a thousand instant judgments. At Atlas, which has a maximum occupancy of 99, he is head of security, running a team of four, as well as the doorman. And tonight -- despite the threats around the block and what he calls “overwhelming sadness” over Orlando, the worst mass shooting in modern American history -- it’s business as usual.

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“I’m not doing anything operationally different [since the shootings], because there really isn’t anything that I could do, except to be my usual observant and proactive self,” says Andre. “I don’t carry a gun, nor would I want to, because I don’t see that as the solution.”

His sentiments were echoed by others in the nightclub security business who spoke to Billboard in the wake of the Orlando massacre. Essentially, we do what we can, but what can we do?

The stereotype of the nightlife security guard-cum-doorman is well-established thanks to movies like Road House and A Night at the Roxbury and media accounts of those not chic enough to gain entry to New York’s late, legendary Studio 54: He’s an intimidating and frequently condescending presence at the velvet ropes, judging IDs, shoes and general worthiness -- or the muscle behind the club’s gatekeepers, meting out that venue’s particular form of justice when things get ugly.

“Doormen in particular are oftentimes vilified because they’re the gatekeepers,” says Andre. “No one wants to be told ‘no’ or that they can’t come in for whatever reason, especially when they’re in party mode.”

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But that perception is changing in the wake of the tragedies that befell Pulse, the murder of singer Christina Grimmie that same weekend in Orlando, a backstage shooting at a T.I. concert at New York’s Irving Plaza in May that killed one person and last November’s massacre at The Bataclan in Paris, where Islamic terrorists claimed the lives of 89 people attending an Eagles of Death Metal concert.

At Brooklyn beer hall KBH on the night of June 18, Matthew Lifson, a 27-year-old brand consultant, explained the change. “Security guards often have been thought of as the antagonists keeping you out of a place you want to be, but after these events it’s clear that they are also the first line of defense in protecting a group of people within a shared space.” Once seen as beefy buzzkills in black T-shirts, they are now the flesh-and-blood barriers between a venue’s customers and killers with high-capacity, quick-reload semi-automatic weapons.

“When we thought about gunplay back in the day -- and I don’t even mean 10 years ago, I mean recently -- we would think a guy with a handgun,” says Jarrod Khoury, who worked as head of security for the 2,600-capacity nightclub Pacha NYC for all of its 10 years. (The club closed in January.) “If somebody wanted to do something to somebody, they wanted to do it to that one person. It wasn’t blanket violence.”

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At Atlas, Andre says he hasn’t noticed the bar’s patrons treating him more deferentially. He also says, “[The Orlando attack] hasn’t really changed my mind-set, because I really do believe that you can’t live in fear or you’ve handed a small victory to those who perpetrate these heinous acts.

“With extremists, Muslim or otherwise, it’s already a given that they hate gays,” he continues, “but it’s also true that they hate just about everyone else who isn’t exactly like them.”

As the terrorist threat broadens from high-visibility targets in major cities to “soft targets” anywhere, club security details find themselves in the position of developing their own protocols, sometimes without the support of local law-enforcement authorities or the resources (and manpower) of the professional live-event security firms (like Huntington Beach, Calif.-based Staff Pro) that typically police stadiums and arenas.

At Seattle’s Foundation Nightclub, for instance, GM Pat Maher hired seasoned security specialist Ian Allen to head up his team of guards, mostly to “make customers feel safe and leave happy,” but also to manage new threats. “Security is on the front lines, whether people accept that or not,” says Allen, who trained as a bodyguard in the United Kingdom; has a laundry list of certifications in threat assessment, firearms and martial arts; and specializes in training security teams. “Just being a bouncer isn’t really enough in the modern world,” he says. At Foundation, his crew uses a “hug method” to contain violent patrons, and his 19-year-old son helps him scan the lines of people waiting to get inside to spot underage nightcrawlers.

Allen says that the United States lags behind many other countries when it comes to the training and certification of security forces for bars and other nightlife venues -- “They’ve had to deal with threats like this [overseas] for longer,” he notes -- and needs to catch up. “A lot of bouncers who I know and have trained will hate me for saying it, but you need to have a licensed nightclub security system. Grandfather in pros and everyone else needs to be certified, trained and badged,” he says.

Such countries as the United Kingdom, Spain, Germany, Australia and New Zealand have federal laws mandating specialized training for nightclub security workers. In the United Kingdom, “pub guards” must wear armbands, display a license and give their name and ID number to any patron who asks. But in the United States, requirements vary widely from state to state and even city to city -- if they exist at all. Oregon, Hawaii, California and Louisiana are the only states that mandate bouncer-specific training, plus a background check and registration with the state for security workers. Philadelphia; Providence, R.I.; and Columbus and Cleveland, Ohio, mandate light training; while New York, San Francisco, Miami, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., distribute toothless “best practices” handbooks that vary widely.

In New York, for instance, unarmed security guards are required to undergo 8 hours of training at a state-approved school and another 16 hours on the job to get their “guard card,” but Khoury calls the course “very broad.”

“It covers every type of security agent there is,” he explains. “There’s no pointed training for any different division or discipline. What we do is completely different from what the movie theater or jewelry store or hotel guy does.”

Robert C. Smith, a former San Diego police officer and the author of California’s bouncer-specific course, offers a more pointed assessment of the New York program: “It’s crap,” he says. Smith founded Nightclub Security Consultants in 1998, and it is still the only firm offering specialized training for the alcohol service industry, which he calls HOST (Hospitality Operations Security Techniques). To date, he has trained more than 10,000 bouncers -- only one out of every 100 is female -- for clients that include mega-club Space in Ibiza, Spain, and The Standard, downtown Los Angeles’ swank rooftop bar. “At the end of every [course] that I do, someone comes over and says, ‘How come our state doesn’t mandate this?’ ” he says.

HOST includes training in terrorism awareness, which Smith added six years ago. He doesn’t believe that an attack like the one in Orlando, “with a shooter that motivated,” could have been prevented, but he does contend that training, and a pivot in technique, could have mitigated the loss of life. The club reportedly wasn’t using metal detectors, checking bags or patting down patrons that night, and though an off-duty policeman exchanged gunfire with Mateen early in the siege, Smith says the clubgoers’ instincts to “hide and wait for the good guys to come” failed them in this situation. “The people in that bathroom in Orlando, they ran and sought cover and were killed,” he says. “A different way to think about it is run, hide, fight -- and that can include every guard, cook, barback and patron,” he says. “[Mateen] reloaded several times. At Bataclan in Paris, the shooters on the mezzanine reloaded three times and no one attacked them. It bothers me in my stomach and my head when I think about this and how it could have been different.”

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“Run, hide, fight” became national protocol in 2014, when the U.S. Department of Homeland Security released a video demonstrating the practice. Smith tells his trainees that part of their job is putting themselves in harm’s way, which many initially resist. “It’s a dangerous job, and you have to accept it,” he says. “Otherwise, be a sandwich artist at Subway or a barista at Starbucks.” Like Andre, he doesn’t believe that arming guards with guns is a solution. Attacks like those in Orlando and Paris are still rare, he says, and the possibility of an error in judgment with a firearm is greater. (Save for off-duty cops or private details, security teams typically don’t carry guns.)

He does, however, advocate the use of improvised weapons. “You better be prepared to pick up a fire extinguisher, grab a paring knife or a bottle of champagne and attack that shooter,” he tells trainees. Such sacrifice can be a lot to ask of guys who earn $10 to $15 an hour and who simply might be fitness enthusiasts or trying to work their way through college. Andre has degrees in biology and education; being a doorman was “just a fluke,” he says. “I always weightlifted and kind of looked the part, so I guess that’s why a friend who worked at a club asked me if I would be interested in a job there.” He estimates that 70 percent of the guards he has worked with also have day jobs. Khoury says that his guards, who were employed by an agency rather than the club itself (a common practice), were mostly full time, and would often cycle through several venues during a week.

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Because of the lack of a union or association for nightlife security, Smith is the closest thing to a national advocate for the trade, but, at the venue level, ties can run deep. “We got very close,” says Khoury of his Pacha team. “They would come to the house and hang out, have barbecues. You meet their kids, their significant others. It’s a lot of stress, having to watch over 30 guys. I’ve had guards get stabbed or sliced. I’m the kind of person who takes on more stress than needed.”

Khoury had a close call of his own in 2005, when a pair of men he ejected came back looking for retribution. “I thought there were only two of them, but there was a third, and the kid had a razor in his hand.” He cut Khoury’s back from the top of his right shoulder to his left hip; his leather jacket stopped the blade from reaching his skin. “I would have needed hundreds of stitches,” he recalls. He is currently on tour with R. Kelly as a production manager and says that part of him is relieved to be out of the security business.

Back at Atlas Social Club, Andre’s June 15 shift ends at 4 a.m. the next morning without incident. As he prepares to head home, he says, “I truly hope that some meaningful and constructive changes come about to help prevent tragedies [like Orlando] in the future.” Less than a week later, the Senate voted down four gun-policy measures introduced as a result of Mateen’s rampage, all but guaranteeing that change won’t be coming anytime soon.  

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This article originally appeared in the July 2 issue of Billboard.