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The 'witching hour' in Toronto's club zone

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PART ONE: Metro reporter Jessica Smith rides along with 52 Division in the Entertainment District Saturday night to get a law enforcement perspective on alcohol and crime. Read part two here.

The first drunk tank admission begins in the alley outside This is London Nightclub, where an already wasted 20-something is ejected from the line and starts screaming, “f--k f--k f--k you cop,” to a couple of bike patrol officers who’d come to help the door staff.

“He had a choice,” says 52 Division Staff Sgt. Greg Thorpe.

Given the choice of arranging a safe way home with a relatively sober friend or continuing to scream at police, it’s remarkable how many people actually ask to be taken to the drunk tank.

It changes the way you look at people, says Thorpe.

At the beginning of the night, the six-foot-five former University of Toronto football player had said -- as he carefully folded himself into a police cruiser, making it look comically small by comparison -- that after 25 years on the Toronto police force, he’s realized that what some people call his cynicism is just reality.

In the Entertainment District -- Adelaide, Richmond and King Street West between University and Spadina -- it’s a repetitive cycle of people getting drunk, getting violent and sometimes stabbing, shooting or “bottling” (when someone is hit in the head or face with a liquor bottle) each other.

It’s also young, drunken people swearing at him and calling Thorpe a pig, and he and his officers quietly laughing and calling them names right back after they’re gone.

It’s D platoon’s shift, but members of Thorpe’s C platoon are working on their days off, paid by provincial TAVIS (Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy) money to keep things calm in the club district. Members of the major crime unit and plainclothes officers are out, too, some on foot, some on bikes and others on horses.

“If you want to avoid being assaulted, avoid the entertainment district,” says Thorpe. “Your odds of being assaulted go though the roof.”

That’s partly because of alcohol, but also because of the “anti-social types who come to fight” and the ever-present gang element, he says.

Thorpe says the gang problem in the club scene isn’t limited to the clientele. He points to a few of the clubs and names the gangs who run them, disguising drug and illegal gambling money as alcohol sales.

The money means the club district will never go away, he says.

At about 1 a.m. someone is bottled at Tryst on Peter Street and the door staff warns police that they have a bad crowd.

Bottle service -- spending about big money on a bottle of booze, typically at more than 100 per cent markup—doesn’t seem to make anyone sit and savour it. It goes down fast, leaving a weapon on the table.

What could make the club district safer?

“I don’t know what’s going to stop a guy from just coming up and punching another guy in the head,” says Thorpe.

Outside of a club called City, a girl in a blue bandana is yelling at cops that a bouncer assaulted her, but they’d seen her slap a bouncer, not the other way around. So they just tell her to go home.

She’s drunk, crying and yelling at the officers, whom she inexplicably calls “feds” to “serve and protect.”

Her friend is curled up in a ball, nearly comatose, on the curb in front of Thorpe’s cruiser, when a young male stranger takes her hand, eventually pulls her up to standing and starts to lead her away.

When she falls into traffic, her friend finally notices and shoos the guy away, still yelling at police.

Thorpe says date rape drugs are common. He’ll often see a man leading an oblivious woman away from a club and won’t know if he really is her boyfriend.

Over the radio there’s a call to Maison Nightclub, a swankier place on Mercer with a Ferrari parked out front, that caters to a slightly older crowd and the occasional professional athlete. Two ambulances are needed. One reaction to drugs or alcohol and another for a victim hit over the head with a bottle.

After last call a fight breaks out on King near Spadina, people start trying to push the flaming gas-powered heat lamps over and cops on horseback try to clear gawking bystanders so the fight doesn’t escalate into a brawl.

The dispatcher says there is another fight going down.

En route, Thorpe’s car passes another smaller altercation.

“We don't have enough resources,” he says. At 2:52, over the radio an officer says, “We've got fights and things happening all over the district right now." It’s the “witching hour,” says Thorpe.

Back in front of City, the cops’ prisoner van is rocking back and forth as a remarkably strong young woman has a fit inside. It took four officers to subdue her.

The officers say she was dressed like a boy, unlike the vast majority of woman in the district, who uniformly wear mini-dresses and sky-high stilettos.

Thorpe says girls aren’t powerless victims in the club scene. They’ll be just as drunk and pugnacious as men.

It disturbs him that at the end of the night when their feet hurt from their shoes, the girls can be so drunk that they’ll stand barefoot in the ice waiting for a hotdog.

By 3:30, things have quieted down. Thorpe drives over to Crocodile Rock on Adelaide to check on a team of paramedics who picked up a girl who has passed out.

She lies on a gurney with an orange bag around her face to catch her vomit. Her distraught friend looks over her.

"This is alcohol," Thorpe says.

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