When you go clubbing now on West 27th Street, the first things that strike you are the searchlights. Placed at either end of the block at Tenth and Eleventh avenues, they light up the sky like a movie set, turning night into day. Then there’s the huge electronic billboard that reads, “Use of fake IDs is unlawful.” And then the cops, so many you can’t keep count, lining the block, posted on every corner, handing out flyers detailing “Nightlife Safety Tips.” (“Always inform a family member or friend of your whereabouts.”)
So this is how we go clubbing in New York. After Imette St. Guillen, the woman allegedly murdered by a Falls bouncer in late February; after Steven Sakai, a bouncer at Opus 22 who allegedly shot four people, one fatally, in May; and after Jennifer Moore, the 18-year-old raped and murdered in July long after leaving Guest House. This has been the city’s response for the last month: total police saturation. After months of asking for more help in this overpopulated area, West 27th club owners finally got what they asked for, and much, much more. “It looks scary,” says Robert Bookman, a lawyer for the New York Nightlife Association. “It’s like a major terrorist event has happened.”
“A good amount makes people feel safe,” Home and Guest House owner Jon B says of the increased police presence. “When it’s overabundant, it makes people really worried and edgy.”
This weekend I ended my Friday night at Lit, where DJ Mike Simonetti was spinning to an empty house—Lit lacks a cabaret license, so he couldn’t spin music that compelled people to actually dance. Meanwhile, the team of police officers, State Liquor Authority reps, and fire and building inspectors that comprise MARCH (Multi-Agency Response to City Hotspots) made its way around the East Village, handing out citations.
Across town, Spirit, a club on the West 27th Street block, was shut down under the Nuisance Abatement Law for the second time this year. During the last round of club closures in March, it was closed for a week; since its reopening, police have accused the club of selling alcohol to minors and facilitating buys of cocaine and ecstasy. Manager John Blair says that the closure is not for underage drinking or drugs, but “because we made the police mad about our hip-hop night.” (“It was closed for law-breaking,” counters deputy commissioner Paul Browne of the NYPD’s public information office, “not the choice of music.”)
The increased police presence is part of the renewed campaign to clean up the city’s favorite punching bag: New York nightlife. The concerned politicians and community members who backed the newly passed Imette’s Law, drafted by New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, have good intentions. They’ve strengthened the already existing law that requires bouncers to be registered with the state by making it possible for city agencies to close nightclubs hiring unlicensed security under the Nuisance Abatement Law. This is a good thing.
But Imette’s Law and Quinn’s other nightlife proposals—including a plan to mandate security cameras and ID scanners—are what Bruce Schneier termed “security theater” in his 2003 book Beyond Fear. Security theater, Schneier argues, barely alters an already faulty system but gives the appearance of being hugely effective—the equivalent of making Grandma take off her running sneakers before going through airport security. Or, in this case, posting lots of cops on the street handing out safety flyers.
Consider this: Most if not all of the big clubs in the West Chelsea area—like Crobar and Home—already use cameras, including Guest House, the club that’s been destroyed in the press since Jennifer Moore’s death. Cameras are commonly used by clubs for their own security and insurance purposes in case of a fight or accident. “We have 16 cameras in a venue that’s only 3,300 square feet,” says Cain owner Jamie Mulholland. Even the small, grungy Dark Room on Ludlow Street has cameras.
Bernard Cole —a retired second-grade police lieutenant who now serves as president of Cole Consulting Incorporated, a company that trains nightlife security—notes that cameras aren’t even necessary in cases of bouncers gone berserk. “Why would you worry about cameras if you have 100 witnesses?” he asks.
As for the now ubiquitous ID scanners that check for fakes, they’re no more foolproof than the humans who operate them, and don’t protect against minors who use someone else’s real ID, such asan of-age sibling’s or a friend’s. “We implemented the scanners, but not every ID scans,” says Guest House’s Jon B. “The scanner doesn’t scan passports. It only works on specific states. It doesn’t work on countries. We’re not even letting those people in. I don’t want to take any chances.”
Interviewed by the Voice, Council Speaker Quinn defends her proposals. “Cameras can be a deterrent,” she says. “There’s not any one thing that will solve the whole problem. It’s a cumulative effect.” Of the scanners, “You can catch people who have out-and-out fakes with the clubs knowing it’s a requirement. The bouncers will be more focused to have eagle eyes. They’re gonna know people are watching, taking this much more seriously.”
But you could argue that Spirit’s plight—shuttered in March, drastically improved, but still rapped again this weekend—demonstrates how tougher security measures aren’t a perfect or even adequate fix. In order to reopen in the spring, the club had to hire a security monitor who reports directly to the police and watches servers to makes sure no one underage is sold liquor. They also used ID scanners. But the illegal sales persisted, and now Spirit is dark again.
“We all need to be more vigilant,” says NYNA lawyer Bookman. “If you have 4,000 people coming and going in the course of a night, and 10 percent are underage and trying to get in, and you’re catching 75 percent, you are doing a good job. But there’s still 100 underage people in the place throughout the course of the night. We could do better when we have partners in enforcing the law, when we’re all working together.”
Cole, meanwhile, argues that while Imette’s Law is useful in clarifying, for instance, the difference between a bouncer responsible for patrons’ safety and a less culpable cashier, it doesn’t adequately strengthen criminal-background checks. He points out that the already existing security guard license isn’t even a license, but a less formal registration. The club itself needs more stringent documentation, either a watchguard and patrol license or a private investigator license. “Most nightclubs do not have either one of those licenses,” he says. “They are not even licensed to hire security guards. So even if I have a registration card, I’m not working underneath the license.” Imette’s Law doesn’t change this or make it stronger.
Bouncers must take a total of 24 hours of initial training: first an eight-hour pre-assignment course given by a state-certified instructor. Then, a two-level background test that runs through the FBI and New York state rap-sheet databases. After passing those and receiving a registration card, bouncers are supposed to go through 16 hours of on-the-job training, then an eight-hour refresher course once a year to renew their registrations. But many bouncers stop after getting their card—no on-the-job training, no refresher. As that information is hard to verify, employers and even police can’t always catch people cutting corners.
To make matters worse, the courses themselves are unregulated and often flimsy. Michael “Misstress” Formika—drag performer turned operator of the Boysroom, the newly reopened gay bar on Avenue A—was visited by the police a few weeks ago and told that everyone at the door, cashier girls included, needed to be licensed. So he and three of his coworkers got registered. “I spent $215 on a bullshit security-guard class,” he says. “It was supposed to be eight hours, but it was only four hours, and the first hour was them going through the pricing list of different classes you could take. The next hour was an off-duty police officer telling a story of why our job is important. The test itself, literally anyone with half a brain can answer the questions. I finished the test in 60 seconds.” While felons wouldn’t pass the system, Formika says that “Any fool can get this license. The way I look at it, it’s just another way for the city to make money.”
Bookman suggests that the training courses be overseen by the government, like driver’s licenses or food-worker documentation. When I told Quinn about Formika’s experience and Bookman’s suggestion, she said that during the upcoming Nightlife Safety Summit at John Jay College*** in late September, they will be reviewing some of the standards. “If training is substandard, we’ll address that and make requirements,” she says. “It’s a thoughtful suggestion, and the type of dialogue we hope to have at the security summit.”
The unfortunate irony is that the city has created its own monster, with zoning laws forcing new cabarets into specific, non-residential parts of town that are now incredibly overcrowded. “After two decades of pushing nightlife in certain areas, you can’t wake up one morning shocked, shocked, shocked that they are there,” says NYNA’s Bookman. The result on West 27th is a single street often packed with more than 10,000 people—the equivalent of four Hammerstein Ballrooms. “It’s pretty much like Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras,” notes Cain’s Mulholland. He, like some other club owners, believes there are too many clubs, that several additions in the past year have pushed the area over the edge.
David Rabin, owner of Lotus and president of the NYNA, estimates there are 65 million club entrances recorded every year. When you consider those numbers, we’re lucky there aren’t more Imettes, more Jennifers. “It’s just such a sad, sad story,” Mulholland says. “I think about it often. I feel bad for the girls, for the parents of these girls using IDs similar-looking to themselves. We just have to be more on top of our game. I told all my staff, if there are any doubts, it’s not worth it. It really, really isn’t.”