It’s 10 p.m. on a Friday night at Mile High Spirits, a popular craft distillery and music venue downtown.
Thomas Block, who resembles a taller, burlier, better-looking version of the actor Jonah Hill, stands by the entrance, chatting with a handful of twenty-somethings as he checks their IDs. A 22-year-old Colorado native, he sees his bouncer job as a natural extension of the role he played “babysitting” drunk friends at parties growing up.
Manning the exit door is Earl Pedford, 45, Mile High’s head of security. While his ready smile puts patrons at ease, his powerful build suggests he’s not someone they’d want to mess with.
Prevention is the centerpiece of Pedford’s philosophy on bouncing: “Instead of waiting for trouble, we try to spot stuff before it gets inside."
General Manager Steven Kuzma says that as the first people customers see upon arriving, Block and Pedford are the “face of my business,” with the chill but attentive vibe they generate at the door spilling over into the venue.
That warm atmosphere is a major reason that Kuzma recently ended Mile High’s longstanding practice of hiring a pair of off-duty police officers for extra security. While grateful for their service, he says that when someone sees a police officer in a bar, they might think, “‘Well, maybe this is a place where things often happen, so maybe this isn’t a safe place.’”
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The lack of police doesn’t mean that anarchy reigns at Mile High Spirits — quite the contrary. One of Kuzma’s main priorities has been “really amping up our staff to be able to handle major situations when they do arise.”
On November 13, Denver City Council unanimously approved modifications to the Merchant Guard License — required of all private security guards, including bouncers — that would implement training as a condition of employment.
Dan Rowland, director of public affairs for the Department of Excise and Licenses for the City and County of Denver, says that the license had been “long overdue for a cleanup,” having had no significant changes since it was created in the 1950s.
“As one of our most high-volume licenses…we wanted to modernize it, bring the background checks up to snuff and help professionalize the industry,” he says. About 7,000 private security guards are currently licensed.
The proposal passed by city council would require all license applicants to pass an FBI background check and have sixteen hours of training in areas such as use of force, communication, and interacting with law enforcement while physically detaining or ejecting a patron from a venue.
An advisory committee will meet in the next three months to flesh out the training details.
Sergeant Michael Mosco of the Denver Police Department said at the October hearing that training security guards and bouncers in de-escalation is likely to “reduce the incidents that DPD gets involved with.”
While infrequent, situations with police do arise.
In the early hours of March 13, 2016, Denver resident Sam Pickel, 23, was involved in a physical altercation while drinking with friends at Lodo’s Bar and Grill in Westminster, where he himself had previously worked as a bouncer. According to police reports, witnesses claimed that Pickel shoved a man after a heated verbal exchange, at which point four bouncers rushed in, pushed him against a table and took him to the ground.
Multiple witnesses reported that one of the bouncers sat on Pickel’s back while applying a chokehold around his neck for an undetermined amount of time (accounts vary from ten seconds to five minutes). In a police interview, one of the other bouncers described it as a “UFC” [Ultimate Fighting Championship] chokehold.
A few witnesses claimed to have seen Pickel trying to “tap out” — signaling that he couldn’t breathe — yet the bouncer didn’t release his hold. In a police interview, the bouncer in question admitted to restraining Pickel around his neck while they were on the ground because it was the only way he could keep the much larger man from getting up.
Police arrived to find Pickel unconscious and without a pulse, his face blue, his nose bloody, and vomit on the floor next to him. Officers administered CPR until first responders with the Westminster Fire Department arrived and took him to the hospital.
Pickel remained in a coma, attached to a ventilator, for two days, until family members removed him from life support. The Office of the Coroner for Adams and Broomfield counties ruled the death a homicide caused by “asphyxia due to blunt force trauma to the neck.”
Although the district attorney for the two counties investigated the case, no charges were filed against any of the bouncers, because the evidence was found to be “insufficient for prosecution and conviction, based on the inability to disprove a claim of self-defense.”
According to police interviews with the four bouncers, none of them had received training, and three of them said that they hadn’t been provided with a written use-of-force policy. None are still working at the establishment, according to a Lodo’s spokesperson.
In a later conversation with police, Lodo’s owner, Chris Myers, says it’s company policy to distribute a manual to bouncers. Lodo’s declined to provide Westword with a copy despite multiple requests for one.
Whether or not Lodo’s bouncers overreacted in the response that led to Pickel’s death remains unclear. However, Colorado law states that bars can’t necessarily sit back and wait for police to arrive when patrons may be at risk.
According to the state’s Liquor Code, establishments serving alcohol cannot permit “rowdiness, undue noise, or other disturbances or activity offensive to the senses of the average citizen.” Nor can they condone disorderly conduct, which can range from something as innocuous as a “coarse and obviously offensive utterance, gesture, or display,” to fistfights, to brandishing and/or firing a weapon.
While Lodo’s bouncers may have been legally allowed — or even compelled — to get involved in the Pickel incident, how handsy can bouncers get?
Damian Stone is a Denver attorney who handles cases where bouncers may have “overstep[ped] the lines in terms of physical force.”
Stone says that from a legal standpoint, a bouncer is an agent of the property owner, and as such has a say over who gets entrance to an establishment and can ask people to leave or escort them out if necessary.
However, when it comes to laying hands on or detaining people, bouncers are basically making a citizen’s arrest and therefore must follow the laws like everyone else. If they go too far, they can be charged with assault and/or battery. But what’s too far?
Defenses to assault laws in the Colorado Criminal Code include “duress” (such as when a manager forces a bouncer to jump in), when physical force is the only way to prevent injury to a patron, and in cases of self-defense.
Bouncers can even use deadly physical force if it’s thought that a lesser amount won’t be enough to defend him or herself, to protect a patron who may be in “imminent danger” of being seriously injured or killed, or to subdue a violent person in the process of committing burglary, robbery, kidnapping or sexual assault.
While bouncers and the establishments they work for may be held liable for violent acts outside of these instances, Stone cautions that lawsuits can be tricky, since a bar’s staff is likely to corroborate a bouncer’s story or even file a counter suit.
"I've seen it where [the bouncer and patron] are convicted of assault,” he says. “It really becomes risky to file a charge unless you have a lot of independent witnesses or you have a video recording of the incident.”
Stone adds that another option for those who feel they’ve been mistreated by a bouncer is to file a complaint with the Department of Excise and Licenses, which would more likely encourage an establishment to address a situation for fear of losing its liquor license.
Proper training is the key to reducing violent incidents involving bouncers, according to Robert C. Smith, founder of Nightclub Security Consultants.
A former police detective, Smith travels the country from his base in San Diego instructing bouncers how to properly deal with unruly customers, including in Denver, where his business partner resides.
Aside from protecting patrons from injury, he says, training makes good economic sense for a business, as payouts from bouncer-related lawsuits and settlements make up the “largest preventable cost that the hospitality industry faces.”
Joaquin Baca is director of training for Boss High Level Protection, the company that Lodo’s now uses to train its staff in the wake of the Pickel incident. Baca, a former police officer, teaches bouncers about de-escalation and “reasonable and appropriate” use of force.
“Bouncers are probably in a really confusing situation,” Baca says, noting that very few local bars train their employees. “Most of them probably don’t know the legalities of their contacts with customers or what they can and can’t do legally.”
That confusion, he says, means that bouncers are often either going to be “hesitant and not act when they should, or they’re going to overcompensate and escalate to a much higher level of force than they should.”
Smith would like to see a statewide law in Colorado similar to California’s, which, like Denver’s proposed rule change, requires sixteen hours of training.
However, the only murmurings on the state level with regard to bouncers have come from State Representative Jovan Melton, a Democrat from Aurora, who says the issue is on his radar but he’s not planning on introducing legislation anytime soon.
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He says any potential bill wouldn’t involve training specifically, but “more what [bouncers and security guards] can or cannot do,” such as using a chokehold or “detaining someone in a forceful manner that may cause harm.”
While often taken for granted, bouncers play an essential role as the recess monitors of Denver’s downtown playground, keeping an eye out for troublemakers, breaking up fights and making everyone stand in line.
“When nothing goes on and when they don’t necessarily get a pat on the back every night,” says Mile High Spirits’ Kuzma, “that means they did their job.”
Indeed, for every unfortunate incident involving a bouncer, thousands of other interactions go smoothly.
“We’re not trying to be dicks,” Block says. “We just want to make sure everyone’s safe.”