The recent death of an 18-year-old Georgia Southern University student after police say he was beaten at a local bar has focused public attention on what bouncers are legally allowed to do when it comes to handling trouble.
Two former Statesboro bouncers say they rarely had to use force, and the owner of a bouncer training facility in California said proper training methods teach potential bouncers how to keep people safe.
According to Statesboro police reports, Michael Gatto, 18, a Georgia Southern freshman, died Aug. 28 after suffering traumatic head injuries at Rude Rudy’s in University Plaza.
James Grant Spencer, 20, has been charged with felony murder and aggravated battery in connection with the incident. He has been identified as a bouncer at Rude Rudy’s, although he was reportedly off duty at the time.
Rude Rudy’s settled a lawsuit filed in 2010 in which a man claimed injury by a bouncer.
Another lawsuit is pending. A civil suit filed March 20 states Andrew Glueckert accuses Rude Rudy’s LLC of being responsible for injuries sustained when a bouncer “slammed” him to the floor during a fight in February 2013.
Robert C. Smith, the CEO and president of Nightclub Security Consultants in San Diego, said a Statesboro club recently contacted his company asking about bouncer training services. He would not disclose the name of the business and said no one has yet contracted his services.
“We were contacted by a Statesboro … club with a request for information on our training,” Smith said. “We have reached out to them with some information and have yet to hear back on whether they will move to retain our services.”
Heavy-handed violence is rarely necessary when handling a person causing trouble, he said.
“We do not teach arm bars, wrist twists and take-down moves,” Smith said. “The guard has to understand they are hired to keep people safe. They have to understand their job is vital to the billion-dollar hospitality industry. Once they buy in that they are way more than just a security guard, they start to see the importance of acting appropriately.”
Bouncers who know and understand the laws they might see being broken or about to be broken are better equipped to perform smarter and proactively. A guard must know local laws and when it is legal to detain guests, Smith said.
“They must also understand they have the ability to not detain someone for some minor issue that a manager may be better equipped to deal with,” he said.
Smith also teaches about personal liability.
“If the guard better understands their personal liability, they oftentimes act safer and smarter,” he said.
There can be times when force is required.
When a patron is posing a danger to the bouncer or others, “We also teach that using force isn’t illegal and is, in some cases, the best course of action,” Smith said.
Every situation is different and must be treated that way.
“Asking a simple drunk to leave is very different than asking three violent college football players,” Smith said. “But if the guards are taught to act proactively and think ahead, then the drunk is asked to leave before he is a problem, and the three college guys are talked to and dealt with before the eight-person brawl starts.”
Former bouncers speak
Drew Richards, 34, worked at the Lanier Drive bar Dos Primos from 2005 to 2008. He said he had no special training and was hired by the manager, who was a friend.
Statesboro City Clerk Sue Starling said Friday that the city does not require bouncers or guards to register with the city. Richards said he was required to obtain an alcohol servers permit to work at the bar.
He rarely had to use force, and most often simply asked unruly patrons to leave or gently guided them out. If they put up argument, it usually ended when Richards told them he was calling police.
“I’d be as nice as I could,” he said. “The main thing was the safety of everyone else.”
He has had to use a “full nelson” hold when customers became too belligerent, but most of the time, he said, “I’d put my arm around their shoulder, grab their collar and walk them out.”
Matthew Wade, 30, was also a former bouncer at Dos Primos. He said he was not required to be licensed or registered as a security guard.
“I didn’t have to do anything except know the owner,” he said.
Excessive violence was never necessary, he said.
“You didn’t have to hurt anybody to get them out,” Wade said.
In extreme cases, however, he has had to get physical.
“I have hit people but they had guns at the bar, and one guy had a knife,” he said.
If the situation at Rude Rudy’s had involved weapons, that “would have been self-defense,” Wade said. But because Gatto was unarmed and reportedly much smaller than Spencer, Wade said he feels the physical attack on Gatto was “excessive and not needed.”
“I think it’s a horrible thing,” he said of the incident that police say led to Gatto’s death.
If Spencer was indeed off duty at the time of the attack, that’s even worse, Richards added.
“We (bouncers) know not to cause problems if we are there (at the bar) off duty,” Richards said.
Wade said the difference in size between Gatto and Spencer would have meant excessive force was not required.
“He’s a little kid, you’re a big guy, there is no need to hit him,” he said.
A bouncer’s rights
According to www.legalmatch.com, bouncers are not allowed to act as they are portrayed in movies.
“Contrary to popular belief and the way they are portrayed in the media, bouncers are not free to engage in excessive force or violence as they see fit,” reads a statement on the website.
“Generally speaking, bouncers can only use force if it is first used against them. These are the same rights as any ordinary citizen,” according to the website.
Bouncers are legally allowed to give verbal warnings, ask patrons to leave, check identification and refuse entry if the patron is too intoxicated, according to the site.
If a patron “fails to comply with establishment policies, or engages in aggressive behavior,” a bouncer should “call the police, protect innocent bystanders from violence, break up fights and respond with equal force only if necessary. Bouncers are not entitled to engage in the use of force unless they are first threatened with physical harm,” the statement reads.
Unless they are approached with physical threats of harm, bouncers are not entitled to strike a patron with a punch or kick; push or physically throw a person out of the establishment; restrain them with chokeholds, “joint locks” or other techniques; or use weapons or pepper spray.
“In other words, bouncers are simply ordinary persons who are subject to both criminal laws as well as civil personal injury laws,” the site states.
Rude Rudy’s hearing
Jonathan Starkey, owner of Rude Rudy’s, has not returned phone calls over the past few weeks seeking comment about Gatto’s death, the lawsuits against his club or an upcoming alcohol compliance hearing in which his license could be suspended or revoked.
Among issues being considered during the hearing are whether Gatto’s death is a violation of the city’s alcohol ordinance, whether Starkey or other Rude Rudy’s employees served alcohol to people younger than 21,and whether other violations occurred.
The hearing is slated for 9 a.m. Wednesday at Statesboro City Hall.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.