A weekend among Mill Avenue bouncers

Mill Avenue security guards discuss the danger and difficulty surrounding their jobs

Bathed in the neon blue light of the Low Key Piano Bar, a bouncer told me about a man who’d had his head smacked against the sidewalk so hard he bled.

“My buddy powerbombed (the) guy on the concrete outside Cabin," said Tex, a bouncer employed by Low Key who did not share his last name for legal reasons. "He split his head wide open.” 

The incident outside of the now-closed Cabin bar was one of many anecdotes of either bizarre or violent encounters bouncers had at clubs on Mill Avenue. In a series of interviews conducted by The State Press, nightclub security discussed the rigors of a complicated job that may go overlooked.

Their jobs can often land them in entanglements with the law.

"We see people go into clubs in Tempe, and it seems like there's always incidents with bouncers," said Tempe-based DUI and criminal defense attorney Matthew Lopez.

Lopez said his firm experiences an unusually high number of consults related to this matter — around "one or two a week on average." He said those consults, however, rarely involve ASU students.  

Even though there are a high number of potential cases against Tempe nightclub bouncers, he said that they don't necessarily result in a successful lawsuit. 

Lopez said his clients who decide to go to court usually are at a disadvantage because their accounts of what happened are typically viewed as being untrustworthy, he said. Clients are often intoxicated when the incident in question occurs, he said, and bouncers are perceived to have more credibility.

Still, bars on Mill Avenue err on the safe side to avoid being put in that situation. 

“We have a ‘hands-off’ policy here,” said Steven Foulk, a bouncer who works at The Handlebar Tempe, which is just down the street from Low Key.

Such policies are common in bars up and down Mill Avenue, Foulk said, because of previous incidents where an altercation with a bouncer resulted in a lawsuit.

He said that nightclub security personnel are often told to keep their use of force against an unruly patron to a minimum, unless they’re hit first.

Foulk also said that the Tempe Police Department conducts presentations for Mill Avenue bouncers and staff on a yearly basis to discuss how to defuse potentially violent situations.

Ryan Conway, Tempe police officer and organizer of the annual instructional classes, said "the majority of businesses on Mill Avenue attend these classes." Conway said around 170 people representing bars across Mill Avenue attended in 2018.

But despite the precautionary policies bars take on use of force and the police department's training sessions, there is a lack of standardized procedure to justify use of force across the stretch of bars on Mill Avenue.

The trainings that the Tempe police department offers are not mandated by city law and the department currently does not have any certification process for nightclub security, Conway said.

Popular nightclubs like El Hefe tend to have a majority of its staff attend the trainings, he said, but there are some businesses, typically the less frequented ones, that have only management attend or no one from the bar altogether.

“There’s no official training for using force on someone,” said Aram Babasick, a bouncer at Rodeo Ranch.

Babasick said he and the bouncers at Rodeo Ranch have “had to use force something like four times in the last two months," including an incident in which a bar patron hit him on the head and he had to handcuff him on the ground.

“You have to deal with a lot of stupid people,” he said.

Stories of dealing with difficult club patrons, like Babasick’s, are not uncommon for nightclub security on Mill Avenue.

Foulk said he has also witnessed strange instances, such as a time he saw a man with a boa constrictor wrapped around his neck drive past his bar on a Segway.

"This guy jumped up on a table and started dancing," he said, describing a separate incident at the bar he works at. "I told him to get down, but he got back up on the table right away. Then his girlfriend got up there with him and started twerking.” 

Despite the bizarre difficulties of the job, bouncers on Mill Avenue said they like their job.

 “For the most part, it's fun," Tex said.

Nearby residents said they appreciate the security the bouncers provide.

 “I’m glad the bouncers are there," said Joanna Pacheco, a Glendale resident and frequent patron at Mill Avenue clubs. "They make me feel safe.”

Editor's note: This story was updated at 12:33 p.m. on April 19, 2019 to correct typos in the third and 17th paragraphs.

Reach the reporter at Christopher.Clements@asu.edu or follow @ChristopherJCI8.

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