Bars turn to texting to warn of rowdy patrons

PORTLAND, Maine – As patrons at Bull Feeney’s danced to a ‘90s cover band and sipped from cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon, Eric Coulombe, the manager, fiddled with what he says is the latest weapon against the rowdiness and fighting that has long plagued the bar scene in this seaside city – an iPod Touch.

Bar owners and the police here have started a text messaging system to alert one another when a patron is removed from a bar, is overly belligerent or is seen fighting. The texts will include the person’s name, if it is known, a physical description or photo, and what the person was doing.

Alcohol-fuelled violence “has really been a problem, and if we can intercept them before anything happens, that’s a good thing,” said James E. Craig, the city’s police chief.

Restaurants have made Portland a draw in recent years, but it has long been a magnet for pub crawlers who hop among the dozens of bars packed into the dense Old Port section. In the summer months, the neighbourhood of cobblestone streets and quaint shops can turn raucous at night, with intoxicated patrons fighting, screaming and singing.

“People who live in Portland and the region, they all tell me, ‘I will not go in the Old Port after 10 because of the level of violence’ – I mean the fighting, the public drunkenness,” Craig said. “It’s really a jewel in the city that everyone should be able to use without issue.”

The idea to start a “text tree,” as it is being called, came out of a security meeting of bar and nightclub owners this year. It is modelled after a video system Las Vegas casinos use to alert one another when people are cheating or gambling illegally.

Participants thought text messaging would be the easiest way to relay the information, since most employees carry a cell phone and can quickly see the message.

“It’s an extra set of eyes,” said Jeff Nappi, a bartender at Fore Play, a popular sports bar on Fore Street.

Mike Sauschuck, the assistant chief of police, said the police had enlisted about 25 bars – out of about 30 in the Old Port – to participate in the texting system as of Thursday. So far, he said, bouncers and other bar employees had sent about 20 texts warning of unruly patrons. The texts have not led to any arrests, but Sauschuck said publicity around the system appears to have deterred fighting.

Users download a free text-sharing system, which Coulombe displayed on his iPod Touch.

“We hope that before they hit the street, we’ll send out notice in advance not to let these people in,” he said.

Some patrons said they were glad the police had added an additional layer of protection, as violence had escalated in recent weeks. Last month, Eric Benson, 24, was walking with a woman after the bars had closed when three men approached and, after a brief conversation, started beating him, according to the police. He later died. A 20-year-old man has been charged with manslaughter.

“Would texting have prevented it?” Craig said. “Possibly, but what I don’t know for certain was whether or not the group that is accused was disorderly” at the bars.

Other patrons and civil liberties groups worry that a kind of vigilante justice by untrained civilians could unfairly single out people who match a description but have done nothing wrong.

“We’d be concerned about the police using untrained, unaccountable bouncers to create a database of people that the bouncers claim are disorderly,” said Zachary Heiden, legal director at the Maine Civil Liberties Union.

“I’d be surprised if bars are really so incompetent at identifying people who have been over served that they need to get the police involved,” he added. “Does this really need to be a government program that identifies people who are too drunk to go into a bar?”

But Derek Lovely, 26, at Bull Feeney’s listening to the band belt out “Everlong” by the Foo Fighters, disagreed.

“There’s a fight here every night,” Lovely said. “One drunken guy starts a fight, and it escalates. We’re hard people in Maine.”

On a recent Thursday night, as closing time approached, two women yelled at each other as they tumbled out of Oasis, where a bikini-clad woman gyrated around a stripper pole. Another woman fought with her boyfriend. At RiRa, a low-key pub nearby, a drunken older man had to be escorted out after screaming at patrons and making threats.

Kate McGrath, the bar’s assistant manager, said she recognized the man but did not think the incident warranted the early warning text system, which many said they would use judiciously.

And when the man left, McGrath and the remaining patrons watched with relief as he walked off in the other direction, away from the bars.

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