In the weeks following the kidnap, rape and death of Sarah Everard, public pressure led to the government promising to do more to tackle violence against women and girls. Police officer Wayne Couzens has since admitted kidnapping and raping Everard, and accepts responsibility for her death, yet one suggestion from the government was to deploy plain-clothes police officers into the nighttime economy to patrol venues, making it easier to “identify predatory and suspicious offenders” and for those who’ve been sexually harassed – or worse – to report it.
But pubs, bars and nightclubs already have people hired and trained to look out for attendees’ security. They’re called bouncers and door security staff. And aren’t they meant to serve and protect all of us, even – or especially – those who, after a drink or two or however many, could be targeted by predators?
As things stand, not all bouncers need licences but anyone working as security on the door of a venue – be it a licensed pub, bar or club – does need one. As of this month, 90% of licensed pub, bar and club door staff are men. Licences are granted by the Security Industry Authority (SIA), a Home Office agency funded by the taxpayer. And, at present, it is entirely possible for an SIA licence-holder to have a history of committing violent or sexual crimes because this does not bar them from being granted a licence.
When pressed as to why this is the case, a Home Office spokesperson told Refinery29 that the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act – designed to allow those who’ve done their time and spent their convictions to re-enter society fairly – means it would be discriminatory for bouncers to be refused licences on account of any history of offending.
“I never went outside to collect glasses or take drinks,” explains bar worker Jodie*, now 25. “I thought that if I stayed where the cameras could see me I’d be safe, but even his presence there was detrimental to me.”
Jodie was assaulted by a bouncer who was also her colleague during a work night out two years ago. “We were all talking and laughing and out of nowhere he grabbed both my breasts extremely hard and jiggled them while laughing,” she explains. Other than her ex-boyfriend, Jodie tells me that she “had never had another man’s hands” on her body and the incident “really shook her”.
At present, it is entirely possible for a licence-holder to have a history of committing violent or sexual crimes because this does not bar them from being granted a licence.
The bouncer who sexually assaulted Jodie was off-duty at the time. The next day, when they were both back at work, there were jokes about what he did to her. Jodie was so full of shame that she began drinking heavily and taking drugs for the first time in her life. She couldn’t wear the floral dress she was wearing that night – her favourite dress – for over a year.
“I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I’m so confident as a bigger girl and I show off my sexuality but the incident completely wrecked who I was,” she reflects.
How common are stories like Jodie’s? To find out, Refinery29 submitted Freedom of Information (FoI) requests to all 43 police forces in England and Wales. Twenty-five forces responded that they either do not collect this data or would not be able to provide it due to time constraints or coronavirus. Eighteen forces responded that they do keep data on the number of bouncers and security guards accused of violent or sexually violent crimes.
Over the course of the last half decade – from 1st January 2016 until 1st January 2021 – these 18 forces received a total of 8,266 reports of sexual or violent crimes where the suspect had the job title “security guard” or “door staff”. The forces where reports were particularly high include West Mercia (1,171), Leicestershire (1,151), Staffordshire (867), Devon & Cornwall (898), North Wales (283), Dorset (803) and Humberside (752).
Of the 8,266 reports where the suspect was a security guard or door staff, 6,738 – the vast majority – were of violent crimes.
The true scale of this issue is likely to be greater because forces which oversee nightlife hotspots such as London, Bristol, Birmingham and Liverpool did not provide their data, for the aforementioned reasons.
As ever when it comes to women’s health and safety, there is a data gap.
There is another thing that isn’t recorded. While most of the reported crimes revealed by these FoIs were “violent”, that doesn’t mean this includes incidents of violence against women and girls. Consider this: a third of all violent crime is domestic abuse. Every four days a woman is killed by a male partner or ex. The data sent in response to these FoIs doesn’t account for domestic violence as its own entity. So we cannot know the full extent of how many people currently licensed to work as door staff or security have been implicated in a domestic abuse incident.
Among the 18 police forces who responded, there were 705 reports of sexual violence made over the past five years against a bouncer or security guard.
It is entirely possible that some of the alleged victims could be male but when women are seven times more likely than men to report experiencing a sexual assault, it’s likely there’s a lot of women behind those 705 reports.
Now, what about police officers? Like bouncers and door security staff, they are paid to keep potentially young, potentially drunk, potentially vulnerable people safe late at night.
Refinery29 sent all 43 of the police forces in England and Wales the exact same FoI request that we sent about door staff and security guards. Sixteen forces responded and said that, in total, 831 police officers and staff had been suspects in reports of violent or sex crimes over the past five years. Fourteen of those police forces separated out their data enough for it to be clear that police staff and officers were the suspects in 80 reports of sex crimes during that period.
These figures show that Jodie’s story is likely just one of many nightmare anecdotes you’ll hear if you ask around. However, without a complete data set we cannot get a full picture of the people paid to keep venues – and the people who flock to them to have a good time – safe. This brings us back to the question that echoed across social media in the wake of Sarah Everard’s death: How safe are we all, really? If we can’t trust the people whose job it is to keep us safe, then something is very wrong.
Professor of Public Protection Jane Monckton-Smith, who works at the University of Gloucestershire and wrote In Control: Dangerous Relationships and How They End in Murder, a book all about the patterns of domestic abuse, told Refinery29: “I get so frustrated that we don’t take violence against women seriously as an indicator of high risk.
“We know that violence against women in particular is an indicator of high risk perpetrators of any kind of offence…but there’s always such a focus on incidents rather than patterns,” she added.
Well before assaulting Jodie, the bouncer in question had formed a pattern of behaviour. “He was always inappropriate, making jokes about blow jobs and having sex with people, commenting on how good my bum looked, trying to get some of the girls to go round his,” Jodie explains.
It was never something that she or her female colleagues felt empowered to speak about, though, because they didn’t think they “could talk to management because of the lad culture surrounding things like making jokes about women’s appearances”.
I’ve always prided myself on the fact that I’m so confident as a bigger girl and I show off my sexuality but the incident completely wrecked who I was.
Months later, Jodie developed the courage to tell her boss that the company in-joke – that this bouncer was an “assaulter” – contained more than a nugget of truth. The bouncer was let go but he would still come to the venue. One night, he was in the pub and trying to engage Jodie in conversation. When she refused he told her to “fuck off and get over it,” she says. She went to her manager and said: “It’s not right that he’s here when I am.” Her manager replied: “I don’t know what you want me to do because he isn’t barred.”
Later that night, Jodie’s manager approached her and told her that she was being sent home.
As an employee of this major UK-wide chain of bars, Jodie had more rights than the average customer. However, because of her manager’s response she didn’t feel confident in approaching HR. What she experienced was, technically, workplace sexual harassment and sexual assault at the hands of a colleague. How would a customer who experienced something similar be protected?
The Home Office spokesperson confirmed to R29 that applicants for a door security staff licence are screened through criminal record checks and that the SIA will decide whether or not to waive a history of violence or sex crimes on a “case-by-case basis”.
R29 asked how often such histories are waived. Despite being a public body, the SIA said it does not keep any data on the results of these criminal record checks or on how each licensing decision is made. Nor does the SIA keep any record of complaints that come in about their licence-holders.
And so there is no obvious monitoring which can be shared with the public. This means that the FoI requests we submitted are the best – if somewhat roundabout – way to find out how many bouncers and door security staff have been implicated in crimes against women.
Of course, these figures can only account for incidents which were actually reported to the police. Jodie did not report hers because she didn’t feel like they would be receptive to any report she made. Something, she says, has to change.
“Women and men go out to have a good time and get drunk. But as women we are far more susceptible to being targets [of male violence] and with bouncers you just never know what you’ll get. I’ve met some great bouncers in my time who’ve helped me find friends or show me a place to go, but I’ve also met ones that have kept a drunk girl from her friends or have started fights with men who’ve bumped into them accidentally.”
Katie Russell, a spokesperson for Rape Crisis, told R29: “For industries and venues where staff are likely to come into contact with or have responsibility for people who are vulnerable in any way, for example because they have been drinking, careful vetting and a zero tolerance approach are even more vital. It’s clearly not appropriate for people who pose a threat of violence to be employed in these kinds of roles.”
A spokesperson from the End Violence Against Women Coalition said that the SIA needs to do more to prove that its “case-by-case” policy is transparent. They said: “Any agency of the Home Office has a responsibility to ensure it’s doing everything that it can to ensure it’s not part of the problem as a bare minimum – this means ensuring appropriate and adequate collection of data to ensure responses are evidence-based and ensuring that violent men are not occupying spaces and job roles which are intended to improve safety of women when going about their lives.”
At some point in the near future, nightclubs are expected to reopen for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began. Reserving a rickety bench outside a pub where you’ll be forced to sit in grey drizzle could soon become a faint memory. But sadly, as anyone who has ever gone clubbing knows, nights out can teem with harassers and abusers. That’s something that no one has missed these past 15 months. If bouncers, door security staff and police officers alike can’t be counted on to keep women safe, who can?
A Home Office spokesperson added: “The SIA conducts a careful check of an individual’s suitability before they can gain a licence to work in the private security sector, including a thorough and compulsory criminal record check. This includes checking for sexual offences and the SIA are able to refuse licences on a case-by-case basis.
“Protecting women and girls from violence and abuse is a key priority for the government. Just last month, the Domestic Abuse Act was signed into law and provides protection to millions of people as well as strengthening measures to tackle perpetrators.”
*Name has been changed to protect identity
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
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