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The Surprisingly Lax Oversight of the Security Guard Industry

• July 01, 2014 • 8:00 AM

(Photo: Ella Sarkisyan/Shutterstock)

The private security industry is exploding, but regulations and training aren’t keeping up.

Last week I was walking out of a chain retail store in a mall when my path suddenly was blocked by what appeared to be a fight between three men. It looked like two shorter men, both in nondescript black shirts, were (unsuccessfully) trying to beat up another man who was much bigger than both of them. One guy struggled to hold their target’s arms back, while the other attempted an awkward kind of headlock. The fight got louder and more dramatic, and a crowd gathered; several people pulled out their cell phones and all called the police at once. Still, the three men tangled and scuffled and cursed.

Then I heard one of the shorter men shout to the other to “get the merchandise!”—just as another, more portly guy with a walkie-talkie and some type of badge on his crisp white shirt rushed from another store down the hallway. But the latecomer with the badge didn’t break up the fight—he joined it. The crowd seemed to realize all at once: This wasn’t a fight after all. The two shorter men were security guards, and together with the third, all three (unarmed) guards were finally able to overpower and drag the supposed shoplifter off, maybe to some mall-jail somewhere where he would await the cops.

I don’t know what happened to the accused after that, and I didn’t ever see what piece of merchandise was worth all of that effort. But it made me think about what a difficult and potentially dangerous job it is to be a private security guard—especially one whose mission falls under that ambiguous descriptor of “loss prevention.” Security guards’ days are (I would imagine) incredibly boring, while having the expectation that they may have to suddenly put their bodies at risk in order to protect the assets of, say, a giant retail chain store.

Ten states don’t require proof of citizenship, a minimum age, fingerprints, or a criminal background check to become a licensed security guard. Five states don’t have any licensing requirements at all.

As a nation, we are relying more and more on private security guards—not just to protect against theft, but to patrol the places we live, work, and visit, and to keep us safe. (Some commentators have drawn a correlation between the rise in a nation’s security guard industry and that nation’s rise in economic inequality.) As security guards take on a larger role in protecting and interacting with the public, the lines between private security officers and publicly employed police officers blur. There are now approximately 1.1 million private security officers working in the United States—more than the 800,000 or so police officers in the country today. But as this $7-billion-a-year industry has experienced explosive growth, neither the outside regulation of it nor the training of its members has kept up. And security guards themselves say that this lack of oversight puts them, and the public, at risk.

A recent article in Security Journal by criminal justice researchers Mahesh Nalla and Vaughn Crichlow analyzed the shifts in the security guard industry from 1982 to 2010 to see how state and local regulations and training requirements had kept up with its growth. The size of the industry today is double what it was in 1980. But, the authors wrote, “despite its profitability, its increasing role in the business of national security, and its level of influence in the lives of citizens across America, the private security industry does not possess standard regulations.”

For instance, 10 states don’t require proof of citizenship, a minimum age, fingerprints, or a criminal background check to become a licensed security guard. Five states don’t have any licensing requirements at all. Training requirements seem to be similarly lax in many places in the country; 28 states plus Washington, D.C., have no requirements at all for the training of unarmed guards. For armed security guards, most states just go by gun licensing laws—the supposition being, if you already have a gun license, you’ve already done the necessary training to know how to shoot it.

The authors found all of this very surprising, considering how many other jobs that put people in contact with the public—like “paramedics, childcare workers, and even cosmetologists”—require formal training and licenses. (I should note that New York City and the state of New York, where I saw the prolonged struggle between those men in the mall, have among the strictest regulations and training requirements in the country.)

But how do the guards themselves feel about their training and preparation? Mahesh Nalla and several other colleagues at Michigan State had sought to answer that question in an earlier article, also published in Security Journal. In interviewing security workers about their jobs, the authors found many guards to be unsatisfied. Some of them said they drew on experience and training from previous jobs; many private security guards are retired or off-duty cops or military veterans. Others who lacked that prior experience said they felt unprepared and anxious about how they would handle certain situations if they arose.

The authors cited earlier research that security guards in the U.S. typically receive around four to six hours of training before they start working. But sometimes it’s less; one security guard they interviewed said his “training” for working security for an oil company consisted of sitting in a room and watching a 20-minute safety video. Another spoke about working for a company that sent her to different sites, each of which had different surveillance and alarm systems that she did not know how to operate. She said she approached every day with the thought, “if nothing happens, I’ll be fine.”

Complicated computerized systems are one thing; the prospect of physical confrontations are another. Many guards the researchers spoke with said they felt unsure about how they would handle the “what if” scenarios in this area—how and when they should step in to try to de-escalate a dangerous situation, and when they should stand back and call the cops. For one thing, they felt they lacked the self-defense training necessary to protect themselves. For another, they weren’t sure whether their employers would have their back if they got into legal trouble if they were to accidentally hurt someone else in the process. The authors describe the disconnect this way:

Among the common citizen misperceptions of security officers is the assumption that they are professionals who are trained to jump into a situation and risk injury to protect individuals and property. However, security officers are often instructed and trained to keep away from such situations, as the risk of liability for the hiring company is too great. In some states security officers do not have immunity from prosecution for assault and false arrest in either civil or criminal proceedings; thus, they risk losing their ability to work as officers if they are so charged.

Considering how much time and media attention is spent on the police, it is surprising how little we think about their under-regulated, under-trained private counterparts. In both of these Security Journal articles, the authors argue that more research is necessary. And, since security guard companies probably aren’t going to voluntarily make their requirements stricter, “unless it is deemed to be a cost-effective business strategy,” any increased oversight will likely have to come from the outside.

The Service Employees International Union backs up the authors’ findings and arguments as well. “[I]n the U.S., only 8 percent of private security officers are members of a union,” it declares on its website. “When training is provided to officers, it varies widely—from company to company and building to building. The inconsistency results in a lack of preparedness and a lack of accountability to clients, building tenants, and the public at large.”

Lauren Kirchner
Lauren Kirchner is the Web editor of The Baffler. She has written for the Columbia Journalism Review, Capital New York, Slate, The Awl, The Hairpin, and many others. Follow her on Twitter @lkirchner.

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