Private Guards Public Trust



Ira A. Lipman
Last month’s killing of two Long Island men by a private security guard — a man already on probation for prior drug and weapons convictions — evoked a predictable froth of outrage that just as quickly subsided. What will it take to awaken America and the Congress to the fact that, increasingly throughout the nation, dangerous individuals are acquiring a veneer of official authority and jeopardizing the very public they’re supposed to protect.

The dramatic growth in private security over the last ten years has gone largely unheralded. By 2000 there will be three times as many security guards as police officers, according to the National Institute of Justice, and by then spending by private security will outstrip public law enforcement two-to-one.

Hand-in-glove with the increased presence of security guards has come a host of new responsibilities. A number of states give private security. personnel the authority to make felony arrests when there is “reasonable cause” to believe a crime has been committed. Unlike sworn police officers, guards are not required to tell suspects their Miranda rights. Some states even give security guards the authority to act as “special police” within a specific jurisdiction, such as a plant, store or university campus.

Just who are these new guardians of the public safety? In many cases, they are low-paid hourly-rate employees. The median weekly wage for a security guard is $253, or just over $13,000 a year. Guard applicants can don a uniform, flash a badge and, in many cases, wield a gun just as soon as they fill out an employment form.

Ultimately, the security industry and the criminal justice system bear responsibility for this dangerous state of affairs. The industry has failed at self-regulation. It has failed to impose, enforce, or even agree upon minimum standards for screening and hiring guards. There is probably no other industry where a convicted felon can obtain a position of trust so easily as in private security.

That’s because private security firms are regulated by a dangerous patchwork of state standards — nearly all of them inadequate. Eighteen states allow felons to serve unconditionally as security guards. Another 18 have absolutely no training requirements or no state statute requiring training for guards that carry guns; in most of the others standards are minimal, such as having no prior conviction record.

This situation requires strong government leadership, which has been sorely lacking. Every year since 1978, bills have been proposed in the New York State legislature to regulate the hiring of security guards — and all have died in committee. Legislation sponsored by State Senator Christopher J. Mega, and approved by the State Senate earlier this year, would require among other safeguards, that guards pass a background check before being allowed to work. But if past is prelude, this initiative will likely suffer a similar fate.

Ultimately, standards must be set at the national level. A bill introduced this year by Senator Albert Gore that would prohibit the hiring of convicted criminals, require psychological and background screening of guards, and set minimum levels of education and training. In addition, private security firms need to be granted greater access to employee background information to streamline the hiring process; state employment and privacy laws often prevent this.