Nightclubs and Bars with a bad reputation have been forced to close their doors for failing to control assaultive crime on the premises. As a security consultant, I often get calls at the eleventh hour to try to salvage the dangerous reputation of a nightclub. In most cases it is apparent to me what needs to be done to cure the problem, but often times it is too late to save the club. The death of a nightclub comes slowly and there were many telltale symptoms along the way that were not heeded. For popular nightclubs to operate safely, managers must look beyond the bottom line to ensure the long-term health of a club.

Nightclubs are designed to be hospitable social meeting places but are first and foremost in business to make money. The product being sold is entertainment that’s paid for by selling alcoholic beverages, food services, or by collecting door cover charges. Management determines the intended atmosphere and music format of the club. The venue and music format will determine what demographic group will go to the club. The demographic group and their behavior will determine whether bouncers are necessary to control their conduct.

As you can imagine, a nightclub that markets itself to young adults in an effort to become the next hotspot is destined to have a few conduct problems. Clubs ordained as the new hot club begin to lose control when greed replaces reason. Many clubs will promote drink specials such as two-for-one pitchers of beer or oversize margaritas that encourages sales and over indulgence. Some clubs will advertise ladies night specials to attract more female patrons and pack the house. Club managers can dial down the intensity of a club at any time by modifying the club music format, amount of door charge, limiting the number admitted, adopting stricter dress codes, and altering, or limiting the advertising.

Formula for Disaster

Nightclub problems arise when there is intentional over-crowding, over-serving of alcohol, failing to ban minors, admitting and serving obviously intoxicated persons, and known troublemakers. Other liabilities include failure to control loitering in the parking lot, failure to establish and enforce reasonable club rules, and an intentional policy not to call the police when warranted. Poor business decisions can make a club too intense and will place too much responsibility in the hands of club bouncers to control misconduct. This is a big mistake.

I have seen dozens of nightclubs forced to close down soon after they lost their liquor license or city permits. One day the nightclub is packing the house and enjoying tremendous cash flow. The next day a club is shut down and forced to close its doors. How does this happen overnight? The answer is that it doesn’t. The writing was probably on the wall for some time, but the aggressive club operators failed to heed the warnings.

State Liquor License

Without a liquor-license, a trendy nightclub cannot survive for long. Liquor licenses are issued by the state liquor control board and are subject to suspension and revocation if certain conditions are not met. The most common condition is simply to comply with the law. That is, don’t sell to minors, don’t sell after-hours, don’t sell to intoxicated persons, and don’t sell off-site. Other conditions require the nightclub operator not to run unsafe or unsanitary business and to self-report violent incidents.

Local Permits or Licenses

The city or county usually imposes additional regulations by way of issuing a business license or conditional use permit to operate a nightclub. These regulations are commonly called a business license, a dance permit or a cabaret license, for example. These additional regulations are enforced by the county, city or sometimes by the police or sheriff and are also subject to suspension or revocation. These regulations give the municipality an additional "hammer" to put pressure on a club that utilizes too many police resources. For example, if the police get too many calls for service at a particular club they will issue warnings and/or threaten to revoke the permit or license. Incidents like fights, shootings, drug over-doses, and evidence of over-intoxication will attract the scrutiny of the permit officer. Other issues like alcohol service to a minor and overcrowding the club will also be criticized.

Be a Good Neighbor

Nightclubs usually are not welcome neighbors. From the first day of posting the notice to obtain a license there will be protest from the neighbors or from other businesses in the area. Once in business, nightclubs will receive a higher than average number of complaints. Most common are for noise, litter, traffic, loitering, parking problems, graffiti, and area vandalism. It’s important for a nightclub to be a good neighbor but it’s difficult when the club operates primarily on weekend nights. In my experience, clubs that fail made little or no effort to maintain good relations with adjacent business operators or residents. Neighborhood groups or other adjacent businesses make formidable enemies at license or permit revocation hearings.

Police as a Partner

The police are a community resource available to all commercial businesses. Nightclubs that fail often have a reputation of not cooperating fully with the police. Club operators believe that if they call the police too frequently their liquor license could be in jeopardy. This is not a correct assumption. Instead, clubs hire bouncers to enforce club rules and attempt to keep order without police intervention. Unfortunately, bouncers are often ill equipped to handle huge nightclub crowds and often do so in an illegal manner. See my web page on Bouncers Need Training. In many cases, bouncers have not called the police in time to prevent a major incident from occurring. These major incidents are often the trigger that sets the license revocation process in motion.

Most nightclubs have a critical-intensity period that begins thirty minutes before closing time. As you can imagine, once "last call" is announced a major exodus takes place. Within thirty minutes or less, hundreds of high-spirited club patrons are ushered out into the parking lot or street at their most intoxicated state. If you are going to have a serious melee it will happen at this point. Also, consider the dozens of highly intoxicated drivers hitting the street. In some cities the entire police watch must be pulled from other beats to oversee the close of a popular nightclub. From the police perspective this is an abuse of police resources and creates an unnecessary hazard for the officers. Clubs that fail make little effort to mitigate the impact of closing or invite the police to offer workable solutions. Failed club managers mistakenly believed it was solely the duty of law enforcement to handle crowds on the public streets and not their responsibility. At the club license or permit revocation hearing they are taught otherwise.

The Complaint Process

The police will begin complaining from day one. Unfortunately, most of the early police warnings are verbal and may not find their way to upper management. Any police incident reports written will be filed and not automatically provided to the nightclub. Nightclub managers must periodically request information on reported crime at their club and in the neighborhood. Most police agencies forward copies of serious incident reports onto the state liquor control board and local permit officer for documentation purposes. After a while, the police get tired of getting no cooperation from the nightclub and will begin documenting every incident. Police agencies that begin to target a problem nightclub will start sending in undercover officers looking for underage patrons or evidence of over-serving. The vice-squad may be sent in to conduct surveillance of the club looking for drug use or sales. The fire marshal will pop in to inspect for over-crowding, blocked fire exits, and expired fire extinguishers. The club will be cited for any and all violations and infractions.

Complaints can come from an unhappy neighborhood with great intensity if they are organized. A neighborhood association or tenant group can file numerous complaints as well that have an effect with city managers. Law enforcement will sometimes jump on the bandwagon to support ousting of the offending club for being a drain on police resources. Neighborhood groups have been known to produce live testimony supported by photos and video of disorderly conduct, street fighting, public drunkenness, public urination, street sex, drug use, and reckless driving.

Revocation Process

Most failed nightclubs received multiple warning letters, fines or suspensions before losing their liquor license. Based on the warnings, it should have been no surprise that license and permit revocation was possible. In my experience, however, club managers either didn’t believe it would happen or didn’t know how to bring the club under control. In some cases, club management was just too arrogant and too busy making money to take the warning seriously. They would rather just pay the fine, again, if caught violating the law. The majority of their efforts went into not getting caught.

When the day of reckoning comes either the state liquor control board or local permit officer will order a hearing. Many times the club will receive a license or permit suspension notice pending the outcome of the hearing. At the hearing the police will bring stacks of documentation of the excessive calls for service to the nightclub and about violence associated with the club. Each serious incident will be examined (under a microscope) as evidence of an out-of-control and dangerous club. Often in attendance are neighborhood witnesses testifying about constant fighting, public drunkenness, high speed driving, and about shots being fired near their homes.

Rest in Peace

I often get frantic calls at this point to see if I can assist in salvaging their club by adopting an eleventh-hour security plan but it is usually too late. In its defense, the club can only say it was not their fault or spontaneous external events were not within their control. The club will promise anything to the licensing board to get a second chance to cure the problem. But in my experience it is too little, too late. Once the liquor license and operating permits are revoked, the nightclub is dead. RIP.

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