An image from a surveillance video shows a robbery earlier this year, with a guard being held at gunpoint in the ATM lobby of a New York City bank. Credit: AP photo/FBI

Security guards carry firearms to protect people and property, but the benefits of armed guards have long been a matter of faith rather than a proven fact.

An analysis of FBI bank crimes data by The Center for Investigative Reporting found guards with guns pose a significant risk in those hostile situations. The presence of armed security during bank robberies increased threefold the likelihood of a violent event, according to the analysis.

While volumes of data and research have examined sworn police officers’ effectiveness, the CIR study is among the first to measure how arming civilian guards affects public safety in the United States. CIR’s analysis of the data can be read here

“Personally, my company doesn’t do any armed work. None of the clients I have want armed officers. When they ask for them, my first question is always, ‘Who do you want us to shoot?’ ” — Glade Johnson, security company owner and Georgia state regulator

The FBI database is highly detailed and offers a rare view into what happens in hostile situations. It documents bank crimes reported to the FBI from 2007 to 2011, totaling more than 31,000 incidents, and defines violent events as a physical altercation or use of a weapon, which at times resulted in injuries and death.

Guards with guns were a rarity at banks – they were on duty during fewer than 2 percent of the incidents. But when they were around, their presence was the strongest factor in whether the situation turned violent, and this held true even when controlling for other factors.

When guards were armed during a bank crime, injury rates soared for everyone in the bank. Civilian security guards have borne the worst of it: Sixty-four guards were hurt for every 1,000 incidents when armed, compared with less than 1 injury per 1,000 incidents when they were unarmed.

Joe Loya
Former bank robber Joe Loya said he used to avoid banks with armed guards because of the potential for violence.
Credit: Anna Vignet/CIR

The finding that armed guards may endanger public safety is a sentiment long echoed by the insurance and banking industries. In 1986, federally funded researchers analyzed a sample of bank robberies in Indiana and concluded that armed guards increased the probability of serious violence. At banks under attack, “bullet resistant glass is preferable to an armed guard,” the study’s authors wrote.

The Indiana study three decades ago found armed bank guards were on duty during almost 8 percent of robberies in the state. Today, banks appear to be hiring fewer armed guards. The nationwide FBI data shows that guards carried guns during slightly more than 1 percent of the crimes.

“The tellers are trained to hand the money over, so the armed guard is not going to start a shootout,” said Sarah Grano, a spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association. “The teller gets the robber out as quickly as possible for the safety of everyone.”

For at least one former bank robber, the presence of an armed guard during a heist can add an element of chaos. Joe Loya, who the FBI contends robbed more than 40 banks and who spent seven years in prison, said he would avoid banks with guards because of the potential for violence.

“Bank robbery is about getting the loot and getting the fuck out of there,” Loya said. “And if there’s a guard there, that’s a variable of a messiness that I don’t want to fuckin’ deal with. … I don’t want to have to have a shootout.”

Along with the banking industry, some state regulators believe armed guards increase the risk of violence. Glade Johnson, a security company owner who serves as chairman of Georgia’s Board of Private Detective and Security Agencies, said he requires all of his guards to take drug tests, something that is not required by state law. He also refuses to hire armed guards.

Johnson said he realized long ago that armed guards increase the chance of someone getting hurt. When he worked for another security company in the 1980s, Johnson recalled, one of his guards posted at a bank got into a fight with an unarmed robber. The guard, who was armed, hesitated to shoot, and the robber grabbed the gun, shooting him three times in the chest and killing him.

“Personally, my company doesn’t do any armed work. None of the clients I have want armed officers,” he said. “When they ask for them, my first question is always, ‘Who do you want us to shoot?’ And they say, ‘Nobody.’ So let’s not put guns on them.”

Fatal occupational injury data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics tells a similar story about the dangers of the profession, for both armed and unarmed guards. In 2013, 65 percent of all security guards who died on the job were killed by assault. Compared with police officers who died on the job, security guards who suffered fatal injuries more often saw violent deaths: 46 percent of guards who died on the job were shot. Among police, that rate was 29 percent.

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Recognizing the risk involved in arming guards, some of the largest security companies in the U.S. direct their guards to keep their guns holstered at all times. According to documents filed with state regulators, Securitas, G4S and other large security companies at some job sites forbid their guards to clean, inspect or even handle their guns unless they need to shoot someone in self-defense.

“You want to make sure they’re operating safely,” said Fiona Walters, a spokeswoman for G4S. “We don’t want any misfires.”

Ryan Gabrielson

Ryan Gabrielson is a reporter for ProPublica covering the U.S. justice system. In 2013, his stories for the Center for Investigative Reporting on violent crimes at California’s board-and-care institutions for the developmentally disabled were a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

Previously, he was a reporter at the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz. In 2009, he and Tribune colleague Paul Giblin won a Pulitzer Prize for stories that exposed how immigration enforcement by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office undermined investigations and emergency response. Gabrielson's work has received numerous national honors, including two George Polk Awards, an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Silver Baton, the Al Nakkula Award for Police Reporting, and a Sigma Delta Chi Award. He was a 2009-2010 investigative reporting fellow at UC Berkeley.

A Phoenix native, Gabrielson studied journalism at the University of Arizona and now lives in Oakland with his wife and two daughters.

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.