They have badges, uniforms and guns. And every day across the country, they are thrown into volatile situations. Security guards are everywhere: banks, clubs, grocery stores, office buildings, universities, even elementary schools. There are more security guards in the U.S. than local law enforcement officers.
Reveal has dug in and unearthed story after story, statistic after statistic showing that this societal shift has put guns into the hands of guards who endanger public safety.
Mentalhealth evaluations for armed-guard applicants. Oklahoma flags applicants who are considered mentally unstable and may need treatment before receiving a license. In 2008, Oklahoma regulators intervened in the case of one guard, already licensed, who had attempted suicide and appeared to be on the edge of a mental break. He lost his license. In addition, the state monitors substance abuse problems. In another case, an Oklahoma guard overdosed on a painkiller and muscle relaxer while on duty. Regulators eventually persuaded the guard to voluntarily surrender his license.
Tracking and investigating security guard shootings. Florida does the most thorough job of tracking, responding to and investigating security guard shootings. Regulators there routinely collect news reports of shootings and have at times recommended more training in place of license suspension or revocation. In some cases, the state’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services immediately suspended guards involved in particularly problematic shootings. In cases involving criminal activity, the agency has the option of forwarding cases to certified law enforcement investigators for eventual arrest and prosecution. In most other states, though, armed guards continue working after a shooting.
Firearms training. New York requires the most firearms training of any state, including a full day of training on use of force and 40 hours on the range. In 1975, a federal task force called for guards to receive at least 24 hours of firearms training; today, only 10 states meet this guideline.
Federal background checks. In California, an armed guard is required to obtain a special firearms permit, allowing the state to conduct a specific type of federal background check to determine whether the guard is prohibited from possessing a gun. Under current federal law, this type of check is allowed only if the state issues a firearms license. But many states issue “armed guard” licenses. A simple change in semantics would allow those states to conduct similar checks – filtering out individuals who have been involuntarily committed, are subject to restraining orders or are no longer allowed to possess or carry guns for other reasons.
What’s not working
Little to no firearms training. In some states, a guard can get a license or permit to carry a gun after testing that’s tantamount to target practice. Some guards don’t have to go through any training at all. The low training standards and the implicit risks posed by guns have prompted some in the industry, including regulators, to avoid hiring armed guards. “Personally, my company doesn’t do any armed work. None of the clients I have want armed officers,” said Glade Johnson, a security company owner who serves as chairman of Georgia’s Board of Private Detective and Security Agencies. “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.”
What are armed guards learning? One of the earliest studies of the private security industry found that even military veterans were not sufficiently equipped to work as armed guards. Experts told Reveal that a guard must know when to use a gun, not just how. “I can train a monkey to shoot a gun. But I can’t train him when,” said William Blake, a security consultant who worked for years in the banking industry. Still, few states require a specific course of study, such as when and how to use force.
No background checks. Many states do not require criminal background checks or license armed guards who are prohibited by federal and state law from possessing guns. The problem is not primarily with the industry; many large security companies want background checks to avoid the liability of hiring errant security guards. The problem lies with federal legislators and individual states that refuse to facilitate access to criminal history information.
Licensing armed guards who misuse their guns. Most regulators have no idea when a guard has fired his or her gun, causing injury or death. Twelve states have laws requiring regulators to collect reports of security guard shootings. But guards or their companies, beholden to the honor system, are responsible for sending in the reports. As a result, regulators don’t learn about many shootings and, in many cases, do nothing with the reports they receive.
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.