Every night Alan Mizrachi is on the job, there is at least one person who threatens to go to his car and come back with a gun.
"I see guns, knives, chains. Ask me how many screwdrivers I see on a Saturday night," says Mr. Mizrachi, 34.
He is not a police officer. He is not an EMS worker. Mr. Mizrachi, a bear of a man who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 275 pounds, is a doorman (the preferred term for bouncer) in downtown clubland.
Home to almost 90 clubs -- which attract 30,000 to 60,000 people on weekends -- the eight-block entertainment district bursts out with periodic violence. In mid-January, a fight inside the Union Nightclub on Richmond Street West spilled out onto the streets, and two men were shot. Two innocent bystanders were shot in the leg outside the club Mink in late December. And the month before that, a police officer and six other people were stabbed during a knife fight at John and Pearl Streets.
"The violence is sporadic, but it's there," says Detective Paul Oliver, who has patrolled the entertainment district for close to six years. "Years ago, two guys might go and duke it out. Now, it's normally not one-on-one, it's more four-on-one and in some cases there's weapons involved."
Torontonians are shocked by these news stories. What they don't see is the controlled chaos that security personnel in the area have to deal with, in their own way, on a weekly basis. Bouncers who once had to worry about fistfights now may have to worry about patrons coming at them with brass knuckles or broken beer bottles.
"Fifteen years ago, you didn't have these problems," says Mr. Mizrachi, president of Metropolitan Investigations and Security Services. He tells his 200 security personnel, who staff about two dozen of the area's nightspots, to buy $500 bulletproof vests.
Now, he says, with one or perhaps two security personnel for every 100 people, "sometimes you're fighting for your life."
As worries grow, the Toronto Police Services Board has initiated a pilot project to introduce 15 surveillance cameras around the city, which will help to provide evidence after a crime is committed. "Some additional work needs to be done," says Superintendent Jeff McGuire, head of 51 Division. "When you talk of the entertainment district . . . we've had a lot of shootings and fights and assaults."
For bouncers, the nut of the problem is all about making the right judgment call -- whether to call in the police over a scuffle -- in volatile situations fuelled by drugs, drink, crowds and money. Often, that means balancing bouncers' own personal safety against jeopardizing a club's liquor licence.
In a typical fracas, Mr. Mizrachi says, a bouncer will just eject an unruly patron, which leaves an amped-up, usually drunk young man in an aggressive mood wandering the entertainment district.
"Paid duty," or off-duty officers, as they're better known, can be hired to help manage the flow of people outside a club, but clubs that want police at the door must hire a minimum of four constables and one sergeant at a cost of $60 an hour for a minimum of three hours for each officer. On top of that, there is a 15 per cent administrative fee.
That makes the cost prohibitive for some nightclubs, club managers say. "It costs us $2,400 a weekend" for five paid duty officers -- four constables and a sergeant -- for four hours a night, Friday and Saturday, says Mike Wright, manager of Distrikt, which has a 1,440-person capacity. "There's very few clubs that can afford that."
Roughly 50 to 60 on-duty officers patrol clubland on weekends. Relations between clubs and Toronto Police reached a low point in the spring of 2004, when four officers linked to 52 Division's plainclothes unit were charged in an alleged protection racket.
An investigation conducted by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Ontario Provincial Police alleged that the officers accepted thousands of dollars in bribes in return for warning bar owners about visits by liquor inspectors.
Mr. Mizrachi says the officers now patrolling the district are the best he has ever worked with, but he would like to see much better communication between security personnel and police. At issue: the doormen getting charged.
According to Mr. Mizrachi, the scenario goes like this: "Two guys duke it out; one of them is a security guard. The security guard ends up winning the fight. The first thing that happens is the security guard gets charged with assault." One doorman, who asked not to be named, says there is a simple rule: "If there's blood on the ground, you call the cops. Everything else you want to let slide."
Mr. Wright says most club managers encourage security staff to call police. Still, "it's always a delicate situation," he says. "Some [police]understand the industry and some don't. Every time [bouncers]deal with a fight they don't know if they're going to get charged."
A new initiative -- the Private Investigators and Security Guards Act -- may also improve the situation. Right now, licensing for security personnel is not mandatory. The act, which will make licensing mandatory for all security personnel in the province, was passed by the Ontario Legislature in December, 2005, and will be proclaimed in late summer this year.
Mr. Mizrachi welcomes the legislation, because it will establish clear standards for security personnel. But he fears they will be even less inclined to notify police; by risking being charged, staff will risk losing their security licence, and thus their livelihood.
For now, the changing character of the club district still alarms some. One nightclub manager, who asked not to be named, believes new establishments west of Spadina Avenue such as Century Room and Touch Lounge that operate as clubs, even though they are licensed as restaurants, have siphoned off many of clubland's more desirable patrons. "We get all the garbage," he says.
Don Rodbard, a founder of the King-Spadina Residents' Association, goes one better.
"Over the last three or four years, there has been an accelerated decline into what we refer to as massive criminality," he says. "It's everything from assault, sexual assault, drug dealing under your front window, right down to simple hooliganism."
"They all think they're 50 Cent," Mr. Wright says of the entertainment district's clientele.
"When you've got their hero bragging about being shot nine times and dealing drugs, how much respect do you think they're going to have?"