How safe is security? The rise of excessive force against Leeds students by bouncers
Security is defined as the state of being free from danger. How ironic then that the very people paid to ensure the safety of clubbers can be the ones posing a threat.
Since the start of the academic year, now nightlife is back on its feet again, there seems to be a growing number of reports of punters falling victim to the violence of bouncers. One notable post on Leeds Student Group, a Facebook discussion group for those studying in Leeds, shows photos of a female student (who has asked not to be named) with a bruised and bloodied face alleging that she was pushed to the floor by a bouncer at Beaver Works.
The Gryphon put a call out on the same Facebook group for similar stories and received some harrowing responses. Zoe* described a night out to Viaduct Showbar she had in early October where she was sexually assaulted by another member of the public. Things escalated when her friend Ryan tried to intervene and the assailant punched him in the throat.
“Then about six members of Viaduct’s door staff came running over. Three of them, who were all male, forcefully grabbed my friend by the throat and walked him out the side entrance by his neck. He was tapping out and saying he couldn’t breathe.” Zoe adds that, as Ryan’s girlfriend was shouting at the male security staff, “Two of the female bouncers rammed her against the brick wall in the outside area and strangled her so hard. [One of them] dug her nails into the back of my friend’s neck until she cut through her skin. My friend was trying to scream but couldn’t get any noise out because of how hard this woman strangled her. I followed the bouncers as they removed my friends and then [asked] them why they did that and for all of their badge numbers. They didn’t even look at us and refused to talk to us.”
A spokesperson from the Security Industry Authority, the regulatory body of the private security industry which also grants licences to bouncers, told The Gryphon that “SIA physical intervention training is very clear about avoiding high risk methods of restraint, such as neck and other holds, particularly on the ground, that can adversely affect breathing or circulation”.
One venue that comes up frequently in these testimonies is Warehouse, a student-focused nightspot and stalwart of the Leeds clubbing scene known for hosting many sport society socials. At the Freshers’ Week opening party for Mischief, the event that predominantly hosts these socials, Charlie claims that “I thought I’d paid for my drinks and got the thumbs up from the barman so I handed out the drinks to my friends and walked away with a couple in my hands.” After 20 minutes, he explains that “I’m on the dance floor and get dragged off the floor by my hair (I’m a guy with shoulder length hair) and thrown outside the fire exit by a bouncer. I didn’t fight back or offer any resistance and just put my arms in the air and complied. I was obviously in pain and thought he was going to rip half my hair out.”
Once outside, a member of bar staff came out and explained to Charlie that his payment for the drinks hadn’t gone through so he had the option of either paying or leaving. Charlie completed his payment and carried on with his night.
“Thankfully, not many of my friends saw what happened, but I was absolutely mortified by the event,” he says. “I’ve never been dragged by my hair by anyone and it was painful too!”
The aforementioned spokesperson from the SIA also told The Gryphon that “Door Supervisor training clearly states that operatives should only use physical intervention as a last resort.” They added, “We would never condone pulling or moving a person by their hair.”
A commonality in a lot of the stories is security’s alleged use of violence to deal with non-violent situations. According to SIA rules, licence-holders must protect people and property “only using force that is reasonable, proportionate and allowed by law.” They give the following example as a breach of that commitment: “A door supervisor pushes someone down a set of steps when carrying out an ejection from a nightclub, when no-one was in danger from the person at the time.”
Obviously, not all door staff fall foul of these rules. Alongside claims of violence from bouncers on Leeds Student Group are posts expressing gratitude to helpful members of nightclub security. One such post praises the Warehouse head of security (identified in the comments as Angiie Pearson) for supporting a young woman through a panic attack.
Sean Meikle, who has been working in security for about a year, says there are both pros and cons to the job.
“It can be a very varied job, you’ll do different stuff every day,” he says. “But a lot of people will kick off just to see if you do anything.”
Similarly, Meikle claims that working with the student crowds offer unique challenges.
“When it comes to students they can be either really easy to deal with or really tough. I’d say about 70% are no problem at all, usually articulate and very polite, which makes my job a lot easier. That said, when they kick off they can often act a bit aloof which only fuels the fire.”
So, does Meikle believe that there is an issue with some bouncers abusing their power?
“Definitely,” he says. “Though it’s not as prevalent as people would think looking from the outside.”
“Door security attracts lads that like fighting and giving it the big’un, so it’s fair that people judge places for that but it’s the only reason you’d do the job since the pay is pretty shocking.”
“The sorry truth is a lot of people will just ignore [violence] if they trust [the victim] is being a c**t. I’ve seen groups of lads (from a different company) holding down young blokes and kicking them on the side of the head all for a bit of fun.”
Yet, these issues are not solely limited to use of brute force. Emily, another student based in Leeds, made a serious allegation to The Gryphon about a night in Warehouse last term when she believed one of the drinks she bought in the club was spiked.
“I went in absolutely fine, I’d only had a few drinks, and within an hour I was completely out of it and disorientated,” she claims. “Whilst coming up the stairs where everyone queues for the toilet, a man started to grab me from behind and sexually assaulted me as he managed to put his hand up my dress. My friends saw who did it and reported [it] to management. He was a bouncer guarding the stairs/toilets.”
Emily’s friends were able to alert staff about the assault on the night and get an immediate response. However, many punters who feel as though they have been wronged by security only realise this retrospectively. So, what is the procedure for reporting misconduct at the hands of security?
Judging by the websites of some of Leeds’ most popular venues, there doesn’t seem to be much of one. Pryzm Leeds, Viaduct, Mint Warehouse and Bar Fibre make no mention of how to report these incidents and Warehouse’s ‘Safety and Security’ section is solely-focused on COVID-19. Many of the students we spoke to said that the complaints they sent via email were met with offers of free drinks tokens or ignored completely.
However, Wire, a small nightclub situated on Call Lane, shows a semblance of a strategy against misconduct on their Contact page where they assert that “we take a zero tolerance stance to any form of discrimination or harassment”. This is reminiscent of many ‘safer spaces’ policies that have grown increasingly common in nightlife over the last few years.
The policies aim to set out clear rules for acceptable and unacceptable behaviour in order to make nightlife spaces as welcoming and inclusive for everyone as possible. When venues do not have codes like this in place, it becomes very difficult to hold members of security to account for misbehaviour. Many within the industry, including Michael Upson, founder of the Love Muscle, a Queer techno night held at Wharf Chambers, believe these policies are the way forward.
“Nightclub security in its current form is a bit of an overhang of the 70s & 80s and should be far more pointed towards safer spaces and de-escalation than trying to protect the assets of the venue or trying to enforce drug laws on behalf of the police,” he says. “Wharf Chambers practises de-escalation with its bar staff which is a far more effective tool at diffusing a situation and removing someone from the premises, than trying to remove someone using brute force which can often have violent consequences.”
So, as an event organiser, what does Upson do to ensure that attendees can fairly report incidents of wrongdoing caused by staff and security?
“If a member of the Love Muscle team has caused harm in any way, they previously could be reported to [the venue] or our own safer spaces team. However, to make this more robust we’re going to be engaging a third party, separate to Wharf and our own committee so that a proper accountability process can be followed” Upson explains.
“There have been a couple of occasions in the past 6 years where LM organisers have caused harm, and although these were nothing to do with acts of physical violence, on both occasions they were reported to either Wharf Chambers or our committee and a full accountability process was carried out. The introduction of the third party should give other committee members and party goers the confidence that they can report something about a committee or staff member without having to potentially go through the person who caused the harm.”
Although progress on these issues have predominantly taken place in alternative and underground nightlife spaces, change is starting to be seen in Leeds’ more mainstream club nights. Leeds University Union has recently opened applications for the role of ‘Wellbeing Event Rep’, a new position focused on the health, safety and wellbeing of students at Union events. These reps will be available to approach to report any misconduct from physical assault to verbal abuse and will be on the lookout for attendees who look as though they are in distress.
These reps will also be in charge of monitoring a new ‘safe space’ at these events as Beth Eaton, the student exec Wellbeing Officer, explains.
“We are also implementing a calming space where people can come out of the event and take a moment,” Eaton says. “The whole point of that is that it can be there for people to calm down away from the noise. People can either voluntarily opt to go to that space or it can be used by the reps to check on somebody. It provides another layer of people able to have support on a night out.”
Viaduct also have something similar, as a spokesperson told us: “At Viaduct we do have ‘wellbeing officers’ in place every night of the week to ensure that there is always a person of contact who can deal with the situation hand in hand, they can be found around the venue wearing pink high-vis jackets and are always available to speak to no matter the issue”
Although problems with security management have permeated nightlife for decades, perhaps we are on the cusp of a real change.
“Trying work alongside security can be incredibly tricky but can be worked through with the correct levels of engagement before the club night takes place,” claims Upson. “However, I can say that the majority of venues we engage with that do have security are becoming increasingly more receptive to allowing our safer spaces team lead when issues occur, and thus removing them from the equation unless there is an immediate violent threat.”
These changes are certainly promising, but more venues need to engage with serious security reforms before we see a shift in the way nightlife spaces are managed. The Gryphon reached out to all of the nightclubs mentioned in the piece about this issues raised,
Graham Higgins, the manager of Beaver Works, stated that he “took a personal interest and investigated” the incident mentioned at the beginning of this article “because [he] saw the girl’s injury at the event.” He also claims that security working on the night reported that the woman “had struggled free” from them while being removed from the venue instead of being pushed. Furthermore, he claims that he “checked with independent witnesses who agreed with the staff’s version of events” and he “reviewed CCTV and saw nothing suspicious.”
Higgins continues to say that complaining to Beaver Works is easy to do as “a Google search will bring up [his] personal phone number.” Also, he states that “the staff we use for student events are actually specially picked to help and ‘look after’ students rather than to be ‘bouncers’. Myself and regular security staff constantly guide all security to behave accordingly”
“If I have concerns of any kind, I report this to the security company who may take things further and will not send the staff member to Beaver again. Any incident of any note is recorded in an incident log which is available to the police as evidence and on rare occasions this has been handed to police in respect of staff action. No Beaver staff have been convicted of a criminal act at work”
“We don’t have well being reps and we have no plans for anything similar, I’m not convinced that the roles should be separated. All of our staff are approachable and are always looking out for our customers at all times.”
“I’m not surprised at the article you are writing. It represents part of a bigger picture which is emerging since venues reopened. Despite underground Beaver roots, I have always really enjoyed being involved with students at Beaver rather than tolerating them as an income source and I would love things to be as they were pre pandemic.”
“Please let your readers know that security staff and CCTV are not the enemy of customers or students, they are needed to protect the 99 percent of well behaved customers from the minority who are unable or unwilling to behave and who often need to be protected from themselves. Door staff are not perfect and there will inevitably be problems and misunderstandings but at Beaver Works people can talk to me at the venue by asking for [Graham] by name or asking for a manager.”
The Gryphon reached out to Viaduct and a spokesperson told us that they are aware of the aforementioned incident but “can’t go into full details regarding this incident as we believe there is an ongoing investigation into this matter”. However, they asserted that the door team linked with the incident no longer work with the venue and neither does the security company.
They continue to say that their Equality Policy covers “racism, homophobia, biphobia, sexism, transphobia, disablism” and many other prejudices which are “unacceptable and will be challenged by the Viaduct Management Team if brought to our attention.” This information is currently not available on the Viaduct website as “it is an employee document and ties into our company’s disciplinary procedures” but the venue is “looking at a way of implementing a more condensed version on our website.”
Viaduct also said: “We believe that de-escalation and talking through a situation are the most essential tactics when dealing with incidents or conflicts, it’s always our priority to deter aggressive behaviour away from the venue… The security company we use provides excellent training for their teams, especially conflict management, and we hold regular meetings with them so that we can assess any situations that may have gotten out of hand and how we can prevent these in the future.”
A spokesperson from Bar Fibre, a sister venue to Viaduct, similarly said that “a condensed version of [their ‘Equality Policy’] could be made public on our website and social media platforms, so that people know what we stand for and that we discourage this behaviour in the venue.”
They also gave the exact same statement as Viaduct in regards to the process of reporting staff misconduct but added that “we do not currently have information on our website regarding this process, but we are going to be launching a FAQ section on our website to help answer some general enquiries. So this is definitely something we can add to the list and look at adding in.”
Unlike Viaduct, Bar Fibre does not have ‘wellbeing reps’ as “all managers and supervisors are trained to deal with these types of situations”. However, the spokesperson also said that “we are not closed off to the idea of having a wellbeing rep should the current scenario become inadequate.”
In response to all the issues raised in this piece, a spokesperson from Mint Warehouse only said “This is something we take very seriously. If anyone has anything to report any misconduct please message our facebook page or email firstname.lastname@example.org .”
Warehouse and Pryzm did not respond to requests for comment.
The SIA also wants to tell students that “if anyone sees or hears about someone in the private security industry committing a crime or they are concerned, we want to know. They can report it via the Report a Crime or Concern page on our website or anonymously by calling Crimestoppers on 0800 555 111. A person who has been subjected to an assault, robbery, or other crime should report it to the police in the first instance and also to the venue.”
*All the names of alleged victims in this piece are pseudonyms.