Gips is a Maryland-based security professional, attorney and former executive at ASIS International, the world’s largest security association. He was responsible for certification, standards, guidelines, learning and content. Goldenberg is New Jersey-based chairman of Cardinal Point Strategies, senior fellow at Rutgers University Miller Center and a 25-year veteran of law enforcement. Flor is director of safety and security at UC San Diego Libraries and a security consultant/trainer specializing in armed protective services. She was formerly with the San Diego Police Department and the U.S. Marshals Service.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to private security officers being tasked as quasi-medical workers: social-distance and mask-compliance enforcers, contact tracers and temperature takers. They already serve as first responders at local schools, malls, stadiums and business districts. Yet vast numbers lack critical skills, training and background checks. That’s alarming, as many levels of government continue to divest police obligations to private security due, in part, to the defund movement. Tragic consequences are already upon us.
Though the electorate and public officials across the United States recently pushed back on initiatives to reduce police budgets — voters in November rejected defunding proponents in the Buffalo and Seattle mayoral races and police restructuring plans in Minneapolis — many jurisdictions have slashed their law enforcement budgets, with little understanding of the consequences. Communities are starting to pay the price for replacing police with largely untrained private security officers.
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Poor training of the security staff who worked the Travis Scott concert in Houston in early November likely contributed to a crowd surge that killed 10 people and injured hundreds more. One security guard informed media outlets that he had applied to work the concert just days before, and that during a mass interview process, he was never asked about his qualifications. He had no experience in security. “The training class seemed so rushed, it was a free for all,” he told a local Houston TV station. He also told CNN that not enough police were present.
He decided to abandon his post at the entrance before the concert, fearing that people without tickets would “storm” the gates and he would be injured. His concern was borne out.
This rookie guard’s experience reflects an industry pattern of questionable hires characterized by low wages, high turnover, and pressure to sign new contracts and find enough guards to meet those requirements.
Then there’s the case of Kyle Rittenhouse. Showing up at a protest over police brutality in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he claimed to be filling in for the lack of a police presence, Rittenhouse killed two protesters and injured a third. While Rittenhouse was acquitted on all counts in the shootings, it dramatizes what can happen when untrained private citizens assume police duties.
More concerning still is the prospect of untrained officers dealing with surging violent crime. The FBI recently reported that the U.S. homicide rate saw the highest increase in recorded history from 2019 to 2020, a staggering 30 percent hike. Those numbers have risen yet again — by another 24 percent — in the first quarter of 2021 compared to the same period in 2020 in the 24 cities studied by the Council on Criminal Justice.
California is one of the few jurisdictions getting the message. The state recently passed a law requiring the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services to create a use-of-force standard for private security. When the provisions go into effect in 2023, security officers will be required to undergo additional training to obtain a license. Tragically, the state acted only after San Diego trolley security guards, who were trying to restrain a man who had wandered onto a platform at the Santa Fe Depot, ending up killing him.
But many states have no requirements at all. Regulations are minimal or nonexistent in places such as Idaho, Kentucky and Wyoming. Often it’s just a pulse and a background check, and sometimes just a pulse.
Some security providers require valuable training. But for many others, it’s a race to the bottom. Organizations such as the International Foundation for Protection Officers and ASIS International do their part to professionalize the industry through education, training and research, but they lack legal authority.
We are at a tipping point. We propose the creation of a federal commission to examine the industry and make recommendations on how security officers are recruited, vetted, trained and deployed. The nation needs to understand what we are asking private citizens with newly issued badges and (in some cases, guns) to do — protect our railroads and bridges, identify homegrown terrorists, deescalate tensions at protests and school board meetings, manage unruly crowds and face down mentally disturbed individuals.
Security officers would like to be up to the task. They need support, training and resources.
The United States must professionalize private security, building on best practices and thought leadership. The first step is for a commission appointed by the executive or legislative branch to compile data and context and ultimately issue recommendations. If Congress or the Biden administration fail to act, then the responsibility falls upon each state. The issue is too critical to leave to market forces.