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Winnipeg Free Press
Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada
Saturday, 3 November 2007

Clubs tighten security to stop shootings

THE music is thumping, but my colleague Jen Skerritt and I are stuck in the front entrance of the Empire CabaretEmpire Cabaret while a bulky security guard waves a hand-held metal detector over us.

It's the last Saturday before Halloween around 11:30 p.m. -- one of the club district's busiest nights of the year -- almost exactly a week after four bystanders were shot while partying at ground zero of Winnipeg's nightclub scene.

After the shooting, Empire's owner Sabino Tummillo complained through his assistant that the club couldn't hire off-duty police officers to beef up security.

The only "police" here so far are the Empire's predominantly female staff.

They're wearing skintight uniforms and shiny black caps more Village People than Winnipeg Police Service, with the especially cheeky flaunting chest badges with names like "Ivana Bribe."

Too bad the real security guards hired by the Empire to screen club-goers miss a 15-centimetre screwdriver sitting in the bottom of my clutch. One of them waves a metal detector over my purse, but it doesn't make a sound.

Security at another downtown club, Desire, will also miss the screwdriver tonight.

The same goes for a pair of nail scissors stashed in Jen's tiny purse.

After our bags are opened and cursorily glanced at by a second Empire security guard, we're waved into the cavernous heritage building after paying our $7 cover charge.

Wanting to get rid of our coats, we head through a darkened hallway and down Empire's stairs to an empty blue-lit room. Framed records hang on the wall and a female bartender standing behind a granite-topped bar greets us.

"They told us to dress like this because they want to get the message out we want more cops downtown," says another cop-outfitted bartender.

After paying a $2 fee each to check our gear, we head through another darkened basement room where a few hipsters in their 20s and 30s sip drinks at low-slung tables.

There are about 20 people here, apparently unphased by the latest debacle in clubland: a fight the previous Sunday around 2 a.m., when two groups of gang-involved men began arguing inside the Empire, then one man pulled out a handgun and started firing.

Four innocent customers were hit and taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries.

Upstairs on the Empire's main floor, the lack of a crowd suggests the violence may have chased away some clientele.

Concealed Tools

It's deadsville right now for one of partying's high holidays -- save for one lonely-looking couple twirling on the dance floor under flashing white lights.

A female security guard stands awkwardly at the front of the room beside them, looking bored. A few other partiers trickle in and cluster around, slugging back $5 bottles of beer as they relax at high tables or counters lining the edges of the room.

One floor above them, an informal Latin dance group of about 30 people that regularly meets here is twisting and tangoing, a slightly elder and more tucked-in affair than the main floor pounding Top-40 beats.

Kanye West's hit song Stronger blares and a young guy wearing saggy pants and a baseball cap starts closing in on three women now on the dance floor.

As the women dance away from him, he follows until they give up and get off the floor.

We decide it's time to go.

For other young partiers cutting out of the Empire around 12:30 a.m., the idea of preventing violence by hiring off-duty police officers is dismissed as ludicrous.

"It's Winnipeg. As soon as you land at the airport, you gotta worry about safety," says Younes Zeid, 22, heading off from the Empire with a group of his friends. Zeid tells us violence in the club district doesn't threaten him.

Larissa Tobacco, 24, says she's not nervous here, but appreciates increased vigilance in nightclubs:

"It's obvious they need metal detectors in clubs."

Two club shootings in the last year have prompted the Manitoba government to consider making full-body or hand-held metal detectors mandatory in nightclubs.

* * *

Crowds are out in full force on Bannatyne Avenue east of Main Street. Young women in their early 20s strut out of clubs in precariously high heels and 12-inch skirts -- their risqué Halloween interpretations of Snow White or Little Red Riding Hood.

With three of the city's most popular destinations located here within 300 metres of each other -- Club Desire, Alive in the District and the Empire Cabaret -- traffic is bustling and the atmosphere is circus-like, with partiers hooting and hollering.

Zeid and his friends say the shooting at the Empire could have happened in many nightclubs in the area. Judging by recent events, they're right. A shooting happened in July at Alive in the District after police were called to a fight there.

Shots were fired by two people in a nearby parking lot and one of the armed men was shot by police after allegedly firing at the officers. However, that incident sure hasn't hurt business tonight.

At around 12:45 a.m., a small line spills out of a side door of Alive, where partiers willing to pay a premium $20 cover charge can get fast-tracked inside the club.

There's an even longer line by the north entrance to the nightclub, where more-frugal types say they've been waiting for an hour to get in.

The lines aren't moving, but there's activity in a fenced outdoor smoking patio for club patrons.

A young brunette woman who has stripped off her shirt leans on a hay bale, uttering profanities as she models a black bra.

Minutes later, she'll slip her shirt back on, still uttering profanities, but within an hour another bra-outfitted girl will be standing on the same patio.

Inside, it seems normal rules about the club's maximum capacity have also relaxed, according to a security guard who chalks up the long wait to the big crowd. He says there are about 540 people inside, although the official capacity is 350.

"That's how we pay the (liquor commission)," says the guard. The line doesn't budge, and about 30 minutes later we're sick of waiting and ready to cross the street to Main Street's Club Desire.

A couple behind us in the line follows.

* * *

Desire, a slightly edgier destination, has a small line when we arrive around 1:30 a.m., but inside about 250 writhing bodies pack a sweaty dance floor, while pumping house music blares over them.

Jen and I hold open our handbags for two harried women collecting the cover charge at the door. A security guard keeps a close eye on the people in the lineup who are drunk or particularly obnoxious.

However, once cover is ponied up, it's a free-for-all of mingling partiers.

A trip to the club's battered basement for a women's washroom turns up about a dozen men lined up along the sinks waiting for a cubicle instead, a reflection of the club's "live and let live" vibe. One stall finally empties after two young women tumble out clutching each other. Minutes later, the two women are making out on a main floor dance floor.

A clear pill capsule -- with its contents emptied out -- sits on top of the toilet-paper dispenser. It doesn't faze a young man using the washroom -- in his false eyelashes, tight red dress and small devil horns.

"Unless you got a gun or knife in there, you're fine," he says.

Clubs tighten security to stop shootings

Metal detectors, ID scanners, cameras added

A group of Exchange District club owners said Friday security measures have been stepped up in the wake of violent shootings this year that have put innocent patrons in hospital.

Managers and owners at Empire Cabaret, Alive in the District and Club Desire said they're adding security like full-body metal detectors, surveillance cameras and ID scanners at their clubs to prevent violence among customers.

They said they're happy with an increased police presence in their establishments since a shooting at the Empire last month sent four clubgoers to hospital.

"We haven't lost any business. In fact, we've booked a ton more events," said Tina Rosenberg, a manager at the Empire.

Last week, Rosenberg blasted the Winnipeg Police Service for not providing off-duty officers for hire at the club, but said this week she's noticed an increase in the police presence in her club and other area nightspots.

She also said the Empire received a full-body metal detector this week that all patrons must walk through to enter the lobby.

"It doesn't seem that people are turned off," Rosenberg said.

Alive co-owner Wade Salchert said that although his club is not currently getting a full-body metal detector, security guards will continue to use hand-held metal scanners to check patrons heading inside the club from the street or the club's patio.

Salchert also said ID scanners -- computerized devices that store information and pictures printed on a driver's licence -- will be installed by next week in Alive, and the club's 16 cameras will monitor customers inside and around the establishment.

"At each of our doors, including our patio where people go to smoke, when you re-enter or enter the club, you have at least two security personnel frisking you, wanding you, and checking your ID," Salchert said.

"We have eight security dedicated only to entry into the club."

Desire is also installing similar equipment, said co-owner Sam Colosimo, who said all clubgoers are already patted down and scanned by a hand-held metal detector.

The club also installed a full-body metal detector Friday, he said.

"We always have a box where we catch pot pipes, weed, liquor, any type of sharp object," he said. "If you don't like it, you gotta put it in your car and come back."

Two Free Press reporters who went to Desire last weekend were not scanned by security guards with a metal-detector but were patted down by a security guard.

Owners for each of the clubs indicated they are all planning on opening new nightspots in the Exchange District within the next year.

The group is working with the Manitoba Liquor Control Commission to improve security, said a press release handed out at the announcement.


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