Apr 5, 2007

Could the Chicago Bartender Beating Have Been Prevented?

Bartending is often thought of as nothing but glamour and fun; slinging drinks all night, socializing with friends, earning huge tips and generally calling the shots. But there is a component that is often overlooked, one that goes beyond simply babysitting drunks: the safety issue.

Last month a Chicago bartender—female, 115 pounds, just doing her job—had to cut off one of her patrons. The 250 lb. Chicago police officer she refused to serve took issue with her professional decision and, after an initial scuffle with another patron, proceeded to viciously beat the bartender with fists and feet. The woman walked away fairly unharmed and the cop, who was initially charged with a misdemeanor, is now facing more serious charges.

Aside from the dirty politics that may have been at play following the beating, the incident raises an issue that just isn't discussed enough among anyone, be they patrons, bartenders or bar owners. The absolute most important role of a bartender is providing a safe environment for both employees and patrons. This role can be harrowing, as bartenders frequently work solo shifts with no formal safety training and are by definition interacting with potentially intoxicated clientele.

I bartended solo shifts for years without incident, relying only on tales from fellow bartenders about purse snatchers and neighborhood thugs randomly terrorizing my corner dive (located in not-the-nicest-neighborhood). We kept a baseball bat behind the bar, which was pulled out on a couple of occasions mostly as a joke. I think I'd be better off swinging my fists than a bat, though; I'm not the best ball player but I am small and scrappy.

I do recall regularly turning over the various options open to me should anything ever happen—what would I grab (a pint glass coming down on the nose, I've heard, works wonders)? Where would I go (it's amazing how much bar you can clear when it matters, but the nearest open business was blocks away)? These are things you think about when you're a female bartender standing 5'3" and your bar is completely empty at midnight.

But all your careful planning tends to melt away into an entirely different reality when you're actually faced with potential violence. When two bikers—members of the same bike club (I suppose I could call them a gang, but they were so darn sweet when they behaved)—got into a yelling match one night after a club meeting, I stopped what I was doing and stepped from behind the bar, hoping just seeing me would remind them of where they were. No such luck.

They went from shouting to shoving, and it only took me a second to recognize that the next step was throwing punches (and given their proximity to the pool table I didn't want to wait until cue sticks started swinging). The only problem was that they were both twice my size. So I did what any self-respecting female bartender with half a brain would have done: I stepped directly between them.

Perhaps it was the sight of lil' ol' me putting my hands on each of them as I looked way up at the aggressor of the two, but I suspect the real reason they immediately calmed down was that my instinct had been correct: these two regulars were not psycho, were not blind drunk, and were not inherently violent people. But what if my instinct had been wrong?

I had a handful of other situations over the years when I had to physically get involved in an altercation or physically throw someone out of my bar, each of which involved men larger than myself. And each time I approached the situation differently (my favorite experience was when I actually grabbed a pool cue one night when a 6'2" and scrawny punk-ass sexual harrasser refused my order to leave). And each time, I wondered if I could have approached the situation differently.

My point is not to say that bartenders need to arm themselves with baseball bats and pool cues. In fact, a little prevention goes a long way. If you wait until someone is blind drunk before you cut them off, you've done them a disservice, and yourself and the other patrons a disservice. A bartender's first job is creating a safe haven—literally and figuratively. You do this by knowing your own limits as well as those of your customers. You do it by planning ahead and you do it by paying close attention to your surroundings.

I don't know if anything can prevent a drunk Chicago cop from going on a violent rampage. But the very fact that bartenders come in just behind police officers, taxi drivers and prison guards when it comes to violent attacks in the workplace should be a sobering statistic.* There are things that can be done to minimize risk but how many bar owners and bartenders actually do these things on a regular basis?

Bar owners should:
  • Establish relationships with local police departments and encourage police presence in the neighborhood
  • Provide bartenders with formal safety and alcohol service training
  • Equip bars with multiple points of egress and security equipment
  • Provide barbacks, bouncers and other service staff to support bartenders
  • Check in with bartenders regularly, and encourage full and open communication about any incidents, no matter how minor they seem
Bartenders should:
  • Keep their eyes and ears open (always know who is doing what in your bar)
  • Establish a presence throughout the entire location (vocally and physically—walk the bar, make eye contact and conversation with everybody)
  • Be quick to minimize potential incidents (if a patron is being inappropriate, they need to be called on it immediately)
  • Understand how to identify and approach different situations and personalities
  • Avoid being in an empty bar (I would often buy a drink for a patron if they were the only body in the room just to keep them in their seat until the place filled up a little)
These details may seem obvious but I've witnessed seasoned bartenders who just don't seem to have control over their bar. In a business that already suffers from the stigma that comes with alcohol and intoxication, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised at this; people don't want to admit that there is a dangerous side to the profession. But if more professionals would be realistic about their role and the potential hazards, we might see less of that down side.

Further reading:
The Say It's a Dream Job, But... post about my bartender friend who got held up
ServSafe training program
TiPS training program


Stephen Beaumont said...

Back in the day, I had to jump across the bar a few times to break up fights, and each time I acted purely on instinct, not even recalling later how it was that I found myself on the wrong side of my bar. Mind you, I'm also a 6'2", 190 lb. man, which gave me a little more physical presence than what you describe for yourself in your post.

I agree wholeheartedly with your comments about bartenders needing to take step to protect themselves, though. Most important being the role of management in the creation of a safe, secure workplace.

Oh, and BTW Jess, you missed the second edition of The Session.

Jessie Jane said...

Oh, man, I know! It was on my calendar and everything but Friday was a rough one.