Guarding the doors of the numerous watering holes in Hoboken are a group of savvy and usually stout doormen: the bouncers.
They are asked to protect the bar, the crowd, the bartenders, and themselves. They carry no weapons, although they defend themselves against them from time to time: knives, bats, guns.
But unfortunately, when things get tough, they sometimes avoid calling police.
Several bouncers, bartenders, and bar owners spoke anonymously with the Reporter recently to give people a glimpse inside the world of tavern life.
They noted that they can’t lay a hand on you – but they can bait you into touching them.
They are supposed to call police when situations get out of control, but some bar owners loathe police intervention because it could mean closure, license suspension, or fines – even if the bar did its best to stop a problem.
Avoiding ‘tavern sheets’
Because of regulations in Hoboken, bars are issued a “tavern sheet” when an incident occurs on or near their premises.
A “tavern sheet” is a report written up by police, detailing what happened at the bar that needed police attention. Not all parties are necessarily interviewed for the sheet.
One bar owner complained that the report usually gives the police officer’s point of view, or the view of a victim. The owner said his manager and bouncer are generally not asked to provide their account, or to refute any claims made by sometimes inebriated and embattled victims. The owner provided several tavern sheets to prove his point; none contained information from any bar representative.
When bars have enough strikes against them, they may have to go before the city’s all-volunteer Alcoholic Beverage Control Board to argue why they should avoid penalties or losing their license.
Consider this situation: two friends get drunk and get into a fight. They are taken to police headquarters, sober up, and decide not to press charges against each other. Meanwhile, the bar owner is given a tavern sheet for the incident and then must negotiate with a city prosecutor and go before the ABC board.
“Now I have to retain an attorney for $1,500 minimum,” the owner said.
And the city prosecutor, who is contracted to work on an hourly basis?
“His motivation is to bill the hours to the city,” he said.
Joseph Pojanowski, the city attorney charged with recommending prosecution for alcohol-related incidents, said the city is more concerned with rectifying a situation than in hanging any particular bar owner out to dry.
“If they call [police], it’s to their benefit,” he said, adding that he will take into consideration how the bar handled a situation when he makes his recommendation to the city’s three-person ABC board.
Thus, bouncers are in a delicate position.
In Hoboken, there are more than 140 liquor licenses in use, some for supermarkets or liquor stores, but many for the city’s taverns. The city has a long history of attracting bar patrons, going back to the days when longshoremen worked on the waterfront and enjoyed a few beers.
Pojanowski said that during one bar fight, a bouncer stopped a civilian from grabbing a policeman’s gun from his holster. That bar was sent a letter of commendation.
At the other end of the spectrum, a bouncer broke a woman’s two front teeth in an altercation, and the bar’s liquor license was suspended, he said.
But a bar owner alleged a connection between the subjective nature of prosecution and certain former power-hungry mayors who would use their control as influence over bar owners.
Pojanowski vehemently disagreed.
“I can tell you categorically – in the six or seven years that I’ve been here – I’ve never once gotten a call from the mayor,” he said.
Just the attorney fees alone could prevent bar owners from calling police, as opposed to letting their bouncers handle situations themselves.
“Why would you call the cops?” a bar owner asked rhetorically.
The owner even posed a hypothetical scenario where a competitive bar owner would send friends in a nearby bar to start a fracas and decline to press charges against each other. This could leave the bar with a serious record of fights in a short amount of time.
Pojanowski agrees that the situation is conceivable and would be hard to sniff out, but would be punishable if caught.
He does not believe the system is at all broken, though.
Guarding the door
A bouncer with more than a dozen years of service said that having a good rapport with the police helps matters immensely. If the bouncer, manager, or owner has a good relationship with responding officers, the bar could avoid a tavern sheet altogether.
“Why would you call the cops?” – Bar owner
“There are bars I’ve refused to work with because they let minors in, or there’s fights every weekend,” the bouncer said. “But they’re not getting shut down. Maybe they know some of the police officers?”
He said he knows of some bouncers who bring their girlfriends to work and “instigate fights” should anyone hit on the lady.
He said some bouncers have private cell numbers for police officers, so they can avoid having police headquarters blast out their bar’s name on the police scanner.
He also pointed out the fake ID conundrum. Legally, bouncers are not allowed to confiscate any IDs, even if they are sure they are fake. They are told to call police to have them handle it, but then, another tavern sheet can follow.
So what does a good bouncer do?
“I was almost detained for taking a fake ID,” the bouncer said. “The person told police that I took it and [the police] said I was stealing private property. I ended up almost getting arrested for it.”
The bouncers usually just end up turning fake IDs away without notifying police. This simply allows the underage drinker to move on to the next bar.
What if a bouncer has to remove an unruly patron who doesn’t want to go? Can he forcibly remove them?
“No; we must be able to claim self-defense,” he said. “You have to be able to push that person’s buttons enough [so that they act first].”
A veteran bartender said that a man came in once, drank three glasses of water, and then had a stroke. The bartender called for an ambulance, and when police arrived, they filled out the tavern sheet.
Even if the bar isn’t fined for a particular event – in this case, they were not – the simple number of tavern sheets a bar has can get them into trouble.
The next time someone had a medical emergency in the bar, he said, two employees took the man across the street before they called for help.
A bar owner said bouncers are penalized by the system for taking preventative measures.
Behind the scenes, though, the real deals are being made with police to look the other way, he said.
“Of course there’s deals,” he said. “You don’t see any bars being closed down, do you?”
Top police officials were not immediately available to comment on such allegations.
As a downtown bar manager put it: “You’re damned if you do and you’re damned if you don’t. But you can’t really blame the cops. The screws need to be tightened [on the system].”
A police officer who spoke anonymously said the system is hindering the ability of police to apprehend offenders. He also said it is preventing bar bouncers to have the proper back-up from weapon-carrying officer of the law.
Another bar manager said, “What’s important is that you have good bouncers. They’re not just muscle; they’ve got something between their ears.”
Timothy J. Carroll may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.