Saturday, February 2, 2008

Gangsters at the door

Gangsters at the door

If the burly men won't let you into a club tonight, don't argue. Even if they're not pumped-up on steroids, they may be hardcore criminals. Peter Hetherington reports

Clubs like them tall and wide, with bulging muscles, attitude and close-cropped hair. The bigger the better. Just don't call them bouncers. They are door supervisors to you. Tonight, the busiest of the year, they'll be strutting the pavements of Britain's cities, attempting to marshal the well-lubricated into overcrowded bars and clubs. And partygoers might again learn to their cost that some of these big men, pumped-up with steroids, have a habit of over-reacting as the chemicals take hold.

Although bouncers seem to come in only one shape and size they can, of course, provide a valuable public service. But few trades suffer from such a bad name while growing as fast as the bouncing business. This is partly because many cities are desperate to turn into round-the-clock entertainment centres, dedicated to shopping, all-day drinking and clubbing.

Even upmarket entertainment establishments seem to want - or are persuaded to have - door supervisors. In the last 10 years their numbers have doubled to an estimated 100,000, with over 2,000 "security" companies providing manpower, as well as hundreds more shadier, freelance outfits.

Worried by a string of murders and clubland beatings in the early nineties, police and local councils introduced registration schemes for doormen in an attempt to weed out organised criminals who were "running the doors" with apparent impunity.

But this year the fragility of the system has been exposed in Manchester, the city whose club scene was once dubbed "Madchester". Councillors discovered that so-called "door safe" registration schemes meant nothing if the "companies" employing the bouncers were themselves unregulated. After five murders in the last few months, council leader Richard Leese complained to Greater Manchester's chief constable, David Wilmot, about "rampant lawlessness" in clubland. Leese told him in a confidential letter that gangsterism had caused a crisis that police "were either unable or unwilling to address".

Wilmot responded with road blocks, armed patrols and high-profile club searches. But it didn't stop one of Leese's colleagues being threatened. Pat Karney, who chairs the council's city centre committee, had spoken out about a "cancer of fear" induced by bouncers. Soon he received an ominous message at the town hall: "Remember, we know where you live." While few bouncers are prepared to talk about problems in Manchester, clubbers are in no doubt that some openly flout the law, even selling drugs in clubs. But problems stretch far beyond Manchester.

Five years ago, on New Year's Eve, the assassination of the man regarded as the Mr Big in Newcastle first opened up this can of worms. Viv Graham, who ran a bouncing-cum-protection empire, had been jailed for three years after beating up a 17-stone doorman in a rival night club. He was given another suspended sentence for punching a man senseless and had survived attempts on his life. But he was finally cornered a couple of miles from the haunts he once "protected" in Newcastle's buzzing Bigg Market area.

Leaving the Anchor pub in Wallsend High Street, 34-year-old Graham was hit by three shots at close range as he climbed into his car. Four hours later, he died in hospital. And things soon became quieter.

Five years on, with no one yet charged with his murder, it is a measure of Viv Graham's notoriety that the men who "do the doors" - and, significantly, the companies employing them - still profess a sneaking admiration for the way he conducted business. "He charged consultancy fees and people were quite willing to pay him because he could solve problems," says the boss of one of the country's larger door security firms.

Of course, some will now tell you that since Graham's death the industry has cleaned up its act, with a little help from the police and local councils. Around the country, registration schemes have been launched to ensure, at the very least, that doormen have no criminal records. "But it's still a cut-throat business, so to speak," volunteers Steve, guarding a door in the heart of Graham's old patch. "Viv had an undeserved reputation - he wasn't all bad - and today it's [the scene] a bit quieter on the outside." In cities from Newcastle to Coventry identification tags show that doormen have undertaken a short police-supervised training course on how to treat the punters. If they misbehave, registration is taken away and a bouncer, in theory, becomes unemployable.

It is meant to be reassuring, proof that after waves of violence in clubland, city centres are now safer. But in truth, little has changed. While the doormen might be registered, there is little control over the "security companies", or the front organisations paying them.

"The problem is not with the registered or unregistered doormen," insists Mark Higgins, director of Birmingham-based Leisure Security, which claims to be the largest company employing bouncers. "It's with the people they work for - that's where the real power lies, where there are organised protection rackets. Areas with registration schemes have fewer problems, but it's not the total answer because you could be the biggest gangster in town and still employ registered doormen." But there are deeper problems in an industry that many now regard as the pillar of the black economy, supporting a vast drugs trade along with other sidelines from control of private cabs to the employment of bar staff.

According to Higgins, who employs staff throughout the country, the industry "lends itself to criminality" because of its ability to control the sale of drugs. "We are talking largely about the black economy, a base in which people can trade freely," he says.

This means that, in spite of registration schemes, the battle between rival companies and individuals for control of the doors - and the lucrative trade behind them - is intense. It might explain the murder of a Liverpool bouncer, over two years after Viv Graham's death. Stephen Cole, who had been acquitted of trying to shoot a rival outside a pub in the city, was beaten to death by a gang that burst into a bar while his wife looked on. And it certainly explains much of the recent mayhem in Manchester.

As a nearby Labour MP in the North-west discovered to his cost a few years ago, "doing the doors" is an extremely violent business. Ian McCartney, MP for Makerfield, first began receiving complaints in the mid-80s when he was a local councillor. Initially he was approached by the parents of a man who had been badly beaten by bouncers. "He was left physically and mentally scarred; he complained of intimidation, yet couldn't get a successful prosecution," McCartney recalls. "He was attacked at a bar - apparently mistaken for someone else - then taken into a room and beaten with baseball bats." Soon McCartney had built up a dossier outlining more than 80 cases of severe attacks and intimidation along with what he calls clear evidence of police inaction. "We logged the type of weapons used - guns, knives, screwdrivers, baseball bats, chains as well as knuckle dusters - and heard of many quite horrific incidents." That, in turn, led McCartney to other constituents down the line. "Landlords of very small pubs, who had never had problems in their life, would get visited on, say, Tuesday or Wednesday and told unless they had bouncers on Friday the place would get wrecked - and, of course, if they didn't have them it was wrecked." He received anonymous phone calls. His family was threatened and a wreath was pinned on the front door. Then someone tampered with his car. "I warned that the bouncer companies were becoming the most successful distribution network for drugs in Europe and I am sorry to say this has proved to be the case." McCartney's crusade want down badly in some parts of Wigan. Matters came to a head two years ago when he was having a pint with a friend in a local bar. "This person recognised me, came up and set upon me - it was like a red rag to a bull," he recalls. "He got a year in jail." And McCartney got a broken nose.

"I'm not saying they are all bad," says Mark Higgins. "The stakes are quite high and some people… are not averse to dealing with the situation with violence." He goes along with plans by the British Standards Institute for a draft code of conduct to set a benchmark for so-called door supervisors. It would include guidance on appearance and behaviour and lay down strict training in drug awareness, first aid, fire safety and "handling conflicts". Club and pub owners would be encouraged to employ only BSI-registered companies.

But the Home Office is now considering strengthening the code with a mandatory national registration to outlaw the rogue companies and doormen. That will not be easy with about 90 per cent of operators, according to Higgins, working under the cloak of the black economy. Ian McCartney's fear is that some security companies have now grown into larger organisations, running bars and clubs, and thus becoming more difficult to control.

Pat Karney, in Manchester, points to another difficulty. As a result of tough police action over the past few months, he says the city's clubland is now much quieter. "But the problem has just spread to other areas outside Manchester," he acknowledges. "It hasn't gone away." And regulation of the club scene remains a jungle: "You do not really know what is going on," adds Karney. "And it is frightening how young some of the people involved - the gang leaders - really are." But in a casualised economy, with wages low and unemployment high in the old industrial heartlands, bouncing will still offer relatively easy money in places where little other work is available. Entertainment is now a principal money-spinner in many of our cities. And, one suspects, no amount of regulation or legislation will keep the bouncing boys and their shady employers at bay.(from the guardian)

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