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During the summer of 2013, NHPR’s newsroom took a closer look at crime in Manchester and how it affects the city and its residents. The largest city in a small state, in roughly equal proximity to Boston and the White Mountains, Manchester is in an unusual position, balancing small-city challenges with big-city problems.

Manchester's Club Scene Still Occupies Police Time But Is Much-Improved Environment

Ryan Lessard

A concentration of police resources are spent dealing with disturbances and crimes in and around the popular club scene in downtown Manchester. But it’s not as bad as it used to be. A crackdown on several problem clubs in the past decade have set an example for club owners today. 

Sergeant Brandon Murphy isn’t someone who patronizes Manchester’s clubs, but he knows them better than almost anyone. After midnight on a weekend, you’ll find him patrolling downtown’s club scene. Six months ago, Murphy became the midnight patrol officer for the clubs. His rigid poise, fastidiously ironed uniform and clean manners create a strange juxtaposition to where he spends most of his time.

“In this little area, you’ll have several clubs really. You’ll have Murphy’s, you’ll have Social. Continue westbound and you’ll have Mansion. And then right to the right, northbound here, you’ll have club Drynk. These two here, Social and Drynk are very busy.”

In the early morning hours on a Saturday the area across from the Verizon Wireless Arena is crowded with bar patrons. Bright neon signs illuminate dressed-up twenty somethings as they wait in line. This tightly packed area is the epicenter of Manchester night life. One of the biggest clubs, Drynk, spelled with a ‘Y’, has a capacity of 565 and it sees many more through the course of an evening. In its glistening interior, the mass of revelers rub elbows with cocktails in hand and dance to a live DJ.

Credit Sara Plourde / NHPR
The one half square mile west of the Verizon Wireless Arena is home to four night clubs, a members-only club and Murphy's Taproom and Diner (where Omega was located).

“It takes a certain temperament to work the clubs. You know you’re putting up with people who are primarily intoxicated who don’t want to listen to reason...”

Murphy spends hours sitting in his cruiser, patrolling the scene.  When two young men from Massachusetts walk by, he asks them what options they have for clubbing in Mass.

“…Yea, mostly Boston. I mean it’s closer for me to come here than to go to Boston. Because the parking, and here most of the spots are free. It’s easier to get in and stuff. You save more actually here.”

BM: “There you go, a little more economic. Enjoy your night. I’m gonna move so your buddy can pick you up. You have a good night. Watch yourself-- don’t get run over here.”

This vibrant night life sometimes leads to problems. Sergeant Murphy responded to two big altercations at a couple of clubs that night.

Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR
Social 24 owner Eric Chartrand says his club is more of a "party bar" which plays live music until 10:30 before they switch to the DJ.

But Murphy isn’t the only cop out on a weekend night. Clubs hire what are called detail officers. They’re off duty, in uniform and usually stationed just outside the door from ten at night until two in the morning.

After consulting with the police department, clubs pay about $55 an hour. About $43 of that goes to the officer. The rest goes to administrative overhead and the city pension.

The owner of Social twenty-four, Eric Chartrand says he hires details for the safety of his patrons.

“90% of people listen to police officers. So, when somebody like me tells them to leave over a police officer, they’ll tend to listen to them. But, yea, it’s just for everyone’s safety. Everybody does it. All of us have them.”

And it may be making a difference. The two most popular clubs had about 30 police calls each in the first six months of this year. Most of those were for disorderly conduct and assaults. A few for thefts and drugs.

And that’s a far cry from how bad things used to be. Back in the first six months of 2006, one past club, Envy, had close to 140 police calls. That same year, Club Omega had to be shut down after fighting to recover its liquor license for about a year.

Sergeant Murphy remembers it well.

Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR
Sgt. Brandon Murphy outside the entrance to Drynk after the crowd cleared out. He keeps his glasses on his dashboard, just in case.

“I worked that detail a few times. Back then that was a pretty chaotic situation. They advertised a lot in Massachusetts and stuff like that. A lot of different people from all over the place coming here and you had a lot of violence at that club during that time and that was one of the reasons they were eventually shut down.”

Omega was cited for its liquor violations and outbreaks of violence. There were stabbings and shootings. It also had 15 liquor violations between 2003 and 2005, before it permanently lost its license.

Since then, Omega was one of four places in Manchester to permanently lose their liquor licenses. And a fifth was denied a license for a massive, 800-person proposed club. But that period was an outlier, says Deputy Director of the New Hampshire Liquor Commission Scott Dunn.

“95% of the licensees that we deal with are doing a great job. There are a small percentage that, at times, we do have issues with. I mean you’re dealing with alcohol and it’s a product that can be volatile at times, I’ll say.”

The police department still works closely with the liquor commission. The commission changed its rules to make penalties more severe. And today authorities say they have a better relationship with club owners, with more cooperation and communication.

Mayor Ted Gatsas says he believes it’s a very different scene now.

“Omega was its own situation and it’s no longer open. And I think that speaks for itself. And I think that these clubs decided to hire police to make sure the premises are secure for their patrons and I think that’s important.”

Credit Ryan Lessard / NHPR
After a fight broke out in El Patron on Wilson St., the owners closed the club and a huge crowd of angry patrons lingered, prompting a police response.

Most of the problems happen around the time the clubs close and people empty out. Right now, last call is at one in the morning. But a recent change in state law gives cities the option to extend last call to two AM. The Manchester police department is against such a change and so is Mayor Gatsas.

“I don’t support expanding the 2-o-clock drinking hour. There’s enough hours in the course of the day that if people want cocktails they can get them from six in the morning until one at night. And that’s certainly, as far as I’m concerned, enough space for that to happen.”

But for now, in Manchester, when one o’clock rolls around, it’s last call.  And around 1:30 people start heading home.  But Sergeant Murphy still has a long night ahead of him patrolling the streets until after sunrise.

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