Only 12 states require armed security guards or their employers to report guard-involved shootings to state regulators.

Credit: Sarah Rice for CIR

Recent protests have ignited a national debate about police violence, renewing concerns about the lack of national data on officer-involved shootings.

Last week, Congress passed a bill requiring law enforcement agencies that receive certain federal grants to file quarterly reports on in-custody deaths. The bill is awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature.

But another group of law enforcers operates under even more secrecy: armed security guards.

The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN recently released a yearlong investigation into these hired guns, who often wear uniforms and badges. While some might look and act like police officers, they are equipped with far less training and subjected to far less oversight.

For example, only 12 states require guards or their employers to report security guard-involved shootings to state regulators. In the rest of the country, guard licensing agencies have no clue how many security guards (or even which security guards) are firing their guns.

CIR reviewed shooting reports from six states and found companies and guards frequently fail to file the reports. When they do report the shootings, state regulators in at least four of the states hardly investigated them. As a result, those who recklessly fired their guns remained licensed as armed guards, easily able to find new jobs as guards with guns.

Certainly, in cases of injury or death, law enforcement agencies investigate the shootings to determine whether a crime was committed.

But compare this to how officer-involved shootings are investigated: Anytime a law enforcement officer shoots his or her gun, the department’s internal affairs unit opens an investigation, often alongside investigations by a prosecutor and an outside oversight agency. Pending an outcome of those probes, the officer usually is pulled off the streets.

An armed guard, on the other hand, can go back to work immediately. And guards rarely face an assessment of whether they acted safely and should remain licensed as armed guards.

With many state licensing agencies issuing more armed-guard licenses than ever, the kind of security guard shooting reports we reviewed have never been more important. They provide the only lens into the safety record of individual guards. 

But few people, if any, are watching.

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

Shoshana Walter can be reached at swalter@cironline.org. Follow her on Twitter: @shoeshine.

Shoshana Walter

Shoshana Walter is a reporter for Reveal, covering criminal justice. She and reporter Amy Julia Harris exposed how courts across the country are sending defendants to rehabs that are little more than lucrative work camps for private industry. Their work was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in national reporting. It also won the Knight Award for Public Service, a Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, and an Edward R. Murrow Award, and was a finalist for the Selden Ring, IRE and Livingston Awards. It led to numerous government investigations, two criminal probes and five federal class-action lawsuits alleging slavery, labor violations and fraud.

Walter's investigation on America's armed security guard industry revealed how armed guard licenses have been handed out to people with histories of violence, even people barred by courts from owning guns. Walter and reporter Ryan Gabrielson won the 2015 Livingston Award for Young Journalists for national reporting based on the series, which prompted new laws and an overhaul of California’s regulatory system. For her 2016 investigation about the plight of "trimmigrants," marijuana workers in California's Emerald Triangle, Walter embedded herself in illegal mountain grows and farms. There, she encountered an epidemic of sex abuse and human trafficking in the industry – and a criminal justice system focused more on the illegal drugs. The story prompted legislation, a criminal investigation and grass-roots efforts by the community, including the founding of a worker hotline and safe house.

Walter began her career as a police reporter for The Ledger in Lakeland, Florida, and previously covered violent crime and the politics of policing in Oakland, California, for The Bay Citizen. Her narrative nonfiction as a local reporter garnered a national Sigma Delta Chi Award and a Gold Medal for Public Service from the Florida Society of News Editors. A graduate of Mount Holyoke College, she has been a Dart Center Ochberg fellow for journalism and trauma at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and a John Jay/Harry Frank Guggenheim fellow in criminal justice journalism. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.