California lawmakers set the stage today for potential broad changes to security guard regulations, asking tough questions about enforcement and oversight of the state’s growing security guard industry.

The Sacramento hearing is part of an ongoing review by the Joint Oversight committees of the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, the agency that licenses and oversees the largest security guard population in the United States.

During the hearing, bureau Chief Laura Alarcon fielded questions about firearm training requirements, mental health screening for armed guards, and bureau enforcement and investigations.

“Especially in light of the serious nature of the business you regulate and control, greater steps should be taken to ensure the public is protected,” the Senate Business, Professions and Economic Development Committee’s co-chair, Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, told Alarcon.

Sen. Jerry Hill said a current law that calls for companies and guards to self-report any firearm discharge or use of force is akin to “driving down the street, calling the police and telling them I’m going 69 miles per hour in a 65 mile-per-hour zone.”Credit: Max Whittaker for Reveal Credit: Max Whittaker for Reveal

Hill noted recent Reveal reports that uncovered inadequate investigations of security guard shootings, lags in discipline, and poor screening of security guards and companies. In one case, after a security guard shot an unarmed teenager in the jaw, the guard admitted he was traumatized by the experience. But the bureau failed to interview the guard and allowed him to keep his license.

At the hearing, lawmakers asked about the cost of requiring mental health examinations for armed-guard applicants as well as guards who shoot their guns, a requirement that “would create significant cost to the bureau and may increase the processing times for firearm permits,” Alarcon said.

Hill also asked Alarcon to respond to a Reveal story published earlier today that found that the bureau has allowed dozens of companies to continue operating after regulators discovered abuses of power or evidence of mismanagement or fraud, including one company owner who simply obtained a new license under his wife’s name.

Alarcon said she had not had time to closely read the article, but that “all indications are that the individual was not still involved in the business,” Alarcon said.

“Evidently that person was in the business,” Hill replied.

Several lawmakers questioned Alarcon about the bureau’s investigation and monitoring of security guard shootings.

Alarcon told lawmakers that since July 2014, the bureau has received 54 reports of violent incidents involving guards, including 24 shootings. But current law calls for companies and guards to self-report any firearm discharge or use of force by a guard.

“That’s like my driving down the street, calling the police and telling them I’m going 69 miles per hour in a 65 mile-per-hour zone,” Hill said. “I don’t believe in self-reporting as the solution.”

Alarcon said the bureau is looking at ways of eliciting more reports from law enforcement agencies.

The bureau investigates every report of a violent incident involving a guard, she said, but cannot take immediate action against a guard, even if the guard imperils public safety. If the bureau decides to take action, the guard or company can retain a license for months or years while the case proceeds slowly through the bureau’s disciplinary system. The bureau also can act after a conviction, another slow process that can take years.

“If there’s a police officer that’s in a shooting, they go on desk duty. They are removed from duty pending the outcome of an investigation. And that doesn’t occur here,” Hill noted. “Those individuals can continue to go about their business without a suspension.”

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.