Lobbying by the security industry and big businesses has derailed attempts to require rigorous training standards for armed guards across the country, most of whom face fewer state training requirements than a manicurist in a California nail salon.

In California, an armed guard must have received 14 hours of gun training, six of them on a shooting range, in addition to 40 hours of instruction. Manicurists in the Golden State must complete 400 hours of training.

When guards do get training, their experiences vary from state to state, company to company. Some spend a few hours watching a video or a few days in a classroom or on a shooting range. In some states, guards are required to put themselves through basic training by attending a school, then receive more training from a company once they are hired. Other guards simply complete their training on the job.

In the past decade, industry organizations, including the National Association of Security Companies, helped pave the way for regulations in many states. But they faced resistance from some guard company operators, restaurant owners and retailers, who argued that training requirements would give an unfair advantage to larger companies that can more easily absorb costs.

In the 1990s, federal lawmakers introduced more than a dozen bills related to national training standards and background checks. But the efforts were criticized as toothless or interfering with states’ rights. With a lack of support from most of the industry and lawmakers, the efforts failed.

Today, there are no federal training standards, leaving a hodgepodge of state-by-state rules or no rules at all.  

“I can train a monkey to shoot a gun. But I can’t train him when.” — Security consultant William Blake

“The main opponent was lethargy,” recalled former Tennessee Gov. Don Sundquist, a Republican who sponsored several failed bills when he was a member of Congress. “I mean, people just didn’t concern themselves with it,” he told CIR.

In the aftermath of 9/11, however, the need for reform finally caught on with lawmakers. A bill that passed in 2004 gave all states the option of conducting FBI background checks. But few states that weren’t already conducting the checks chose to do so, finding security companies had little interest in doing them.

“I’ve never been contacted by anyone in the security industry wanting to do those checks,” Dawn Peck of the Idaho State Police said in an interview. “There should be a background check process for them. But I’m not the entity that creates the law or rules.”

The greater the training and deeper the background check, the higher the costs for security guard employers.

“Anything that adds to their cost structure is going to be the kiss of death,” said Gary Leviton, general counsel at Guardsmark, one of the companies that pushed for legislation in the ’90s.

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“Because it is so intensely competitive and profit margins are so very, very narrow, there are many, many companies who will fight any form of regulation because anything that adds any additional cost, they believe, would hurt them from a competitive standpoint.”

At the same time, security companies and groups representing the industry and its executives have spent time and money protecting their federal jobs and contracts, including guards assigned to federal courthouses and office buildings.

ASIS International, a leading industry group, has reported $1.1 million in federal lobbying expenses since 2009, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. The data also show that Securitas, the largest contract security company in North America, spent about $3.1 million on lobbying expenses between 2003 and 2014.

In most states, training requirements are no more specific than a set number of hours in class or on the shooting range. Some states require guard applicants to prove they can hit a target and mandate a list of topics to be discussed during training. But the requirements rarely emphasize avoiding conflict, de-escalating confrontations or knowing when to use force, according to a CIR review of state training laws and regulations. 

“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.

In Washington, D.C., city regulations forbid security guards – not including those who work for the federal government – from carrying guns. Unarmed guards there are subject to higher standards than the majority of armed guards in the rest of the U.S. They’re required to take a drug test, receive 40 hours of training and get a doctor’s mental and physical examination, and they must report any use of force.

“We don’t want to hire anybody and put them in Wal-Mart or the high school, and the guy or gal is a thief or a pervert.” — John Nickols, former chief of the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services

Among the 36 states that license armed guards, none come close to imposing the level of training recommended by the country’s only membership and certification group for security guards – the International Foundation for Protection Officers. The 12,000-member group encourages guards to complete at least 80 hours of training, not including instruction on when and how to use firearms. With 48 hours, the state that comes closest is Alaska.

“The training the states are requiring is ridiculous,” said Executive Director Sandi Davies. “It is still so, so redundant, so obsolete, so unpoliced that it’s a joke.”

For Steve Caballero, who helped write California’s firearms training manual and now teaches armed guards at a training school in Sacramento, the problem lies with security firms that are willing to sacrifice proper training for more profit.

“They need warm bodies to put on the street to make money by the hour,” Caballero said. “They don’t want to have to go through all the training procedures to wait to get that body out there.”

Hired guns- training chart

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In the absence of federal standards, individual states have stepped up to the plate. Regulations in many states passed, but there was rarely a consensus on training standards within the industry, and various groups put up a fight.

John Nickols, who led California’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services from 1996 to 2001, said the industry consistently fought his efforts to raise standards for security guards. At that time, security companies could print and issue their own temporary guard cards and put guards to work before background checks were completed. The fingerprint system, not yet automated, could take as long as six months to process.

“It was kind of the Wild West,” Nickols said. “The temporary permit was passed out like cookies. They would hire people at 4 in the afternoon and put them to work at 5.”  

He pushed for legislation to ban the temporary permits and require FBI background checks to clear before the state could issue a license.

“We don’t want to hire anybody and put them in Wal-Mart or the high school, and the guy or gal is a thief or a pervert,” Nickols said, explaining the necessity of the law, which passed in 2000 despite industry opposition.

“They were appealing it and trying to get it modified because what it meant was they were not free to hire anybody off the street. … The guard industry, when they wanted to hire somebody, they wanted to hire them right now,” Nickols said. “None of them were happy with it. This really stirred up their business.”

Among the opponents to Nickols’ efforts was the California Association of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards and Associates, the state’s only membership group for contract security companies. But by 2007, the group had changed its tune – it wanted more regulations, especially for previously exempt so-called proprietary guards, who are hired directly by a business instead of through a security company.

A showdown ensued. The group sponsored a bill requiring training for proprietary guards. It met heavy opposition from the California Retailers Association, the California Restaurant Association and Staples Center in Los Angeles.

holstered firearm
A display at a security industry trade show.
Credit: CNN footage

The groups argued that the requirements would result in higher costs for businesses that employ their own guards, pushing more business to contract guard companies.

Bill Dombrowski, president of the California Retailers Association, said the bill would have put a “one-size-fits-all” standard on security guards with varying responsibilities, including a requirement that theft prevention agents wear uniforms.

“Our concern was that we would have to have our security people on the sales floor walking in uniforms, and that was not the environment we want to have on the sales floor,” Dombrowski said. “As the bill moved through the process, we got amendments in that took care of our problem. So we dropped our opposition.”

The bill passed. But legislators, under pressure from retail and restaurant groups, included a significant loophole: Guards who don’t wear uniforms – such as bouncers and theft-prevention agents – are not required to undergo training or background checks.

“I am absolutely certain it was written that way because of some special interests that didn’t want to have to follow the rules,” said Robert Gardner, a California-based security consultant.

In Michigan, after security guards on the job killed four people in 2001, public outcry prompted lawmakers to propose training and licensing requirements. But contract security companies objected to the added cost of training, employers of in-house guards argued that they had their own requirements in place, and the state agency performing background checks complained about an anticipated workload increase, according to Joe Jaksa, an assistant professor at Saginaw Valley State University who studied the legislative efforts in Michigan.

Bills requiring basic training for guards died in committees in 2001, 2002 and 2011. In Februaryof this year, lawmakers introduced a pair of bills to require training for security guards; both have stalled since.

Even national industry groups seem to have lost interest in raising standards for guards. In 2004, ASIS International formed a committee of experts to create guidelines for security guard training and background checks. Along with drug testing, firearm discharge reports and requirements for in-house guards, the group recommended at least 48 hours of basic training.

But in recent years, the group rolled back those recommendations. It added more guard company executives to the committee, and the suggested hours of training shrank.

Pam Collins, a professor at Eastern Kentucky University and former U.S. Department of Homeland Security staffer, recalled her frustration as chairwoman of the committee in 2010, when she participated in dozens of conference calls. While some committee members supported 48 hours of training, Collins and others said the contract companies fought against it.

“Every time we’d have a phone call, these guys who own the contract guard companies just resisted and resisted and resisted,” she recalled. “And they just wore me down.”

Realizing she had too little support from the committee, Collins stepped down as chairwoman. She was succeeded by Bernard Greenawalt, a vice president at Securitas.

“It’s money. It’s about money. That’s all it is.” — Pam Collins, Eastern Kentucky University professor

Under Greenawalt’s leadership, the committee scrapped the recommendation of 48 hours, deciding on eight to 12 hours of training. Greenawalt did not return calls seeking comment.

Committee member Steve Bucklin, who owned a security company that later was purchased by U.S. Security Associates Inc., another large security firm, said the hours shrank because contract companies wanted more flexibility. Different guards have different roles, and guard companies have the option to exceed the recommended training hours, he said. But he did not support the change to fewer hours.

“I was very much in favor of keeping the hours because it’s a minimum,” Bucklin said. “We have enough of a bad rap as an industry. I think it’s our responsibility to make sure officers are well trained.”

In an interview, Collins said fewer training requirements give large companies a financial advantage, particularly in an industry with high turnover, because it allows them to put guards on the job more quickly. Also, many large companies have their own training programs, while smaller companies do not, which makes them less able to absorb the costs of additional training. Those costs would get passed on to customers, leaving small companies unable to compete with larger ones.

“It’s money. It’s about money. That’s all it is,” Collins said.

In recent years, the industry has pushed for new regulations, but not enough that would be considered onerous, interviews and records show.

Alabama, for example, passed new licensing requirements for guards in 2009 and established a five-member regulatory board that requires two members approved by ASIS International or the National Association of Security Companies; members also can be approved by “any state or private security service association which may be organized.”  

The law also mandated training hours similar to the ASIS guidelines: eight hours of basic training and four hours with a gun. But like many state regulations, the law provided no specific requirements on the content of the firearms training.

“It’s one thing for a security company to say, ‘I’ve got my people trained.’ But what about that next level?” said Jaksa, the Saginaw Valley State University professor. “What about when do you pull that weapon? When do you not pull that weapon?”

Security industry’s government ties

In the years since 9/11, some of the country’s largest security companies have capitalized on the newly energized market for security spending by fostering close relationships with top government officials.

ASIS International gave its 2012 Leadership in Security Award to then-Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. In 2009, the organization spent more than $9,000 on an event to honor U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine – then a member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee – who has carried bills that have created millions of dollars of business for the security industry.

Among them were the SAFE Port Act and the Chemical Facility Anti-Terrorism Standards, which created new security requirements at ports and private chemical facilities across the United States. In 2013, Collins co-sponsored a bill that would have provided $40 million annually to schools for security enhancements; it didn’t pass.

ASIS International has accumulated federal contracts totaling more than $3.5 million for training, conferences and membership dues. The Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security have adopted ASIS training standards. The Homeland Security Department is also a paying member of the organization; so are the largest contract guard companies in the world. In 2012, the group had revenues in excess of $29.2 million, according to the nonprofit group’s Form 990.

In recent years, the contract security industry faced one of its biggest challenges to date. The Federal Protective Service, which oversees about 13,000 contract guards, came under fire for poor oversight and inadequate training after investigators with the Government Accountability Office were able to enter federal courthouses and offices with knives and guns, undetected by security guards.

As a result, President Barack Obama proposed federalizing the contract positions in 2010, and many lawmakers followed suit.

ASIS International and the National Association of Security Companies lobbied hard against the efforts, successfully fighting the proposed legislation, which would have resulted in a significant loss of revenue for their members.

target practice
Firearms instructor Steve Caballero participates in target practice at the Security & Firearms Training Academy in Sacramento, Calif.
Credit: CNN footage

Instead of supporting full federalization, Collins and then-Rep. Dan Lungren of California each put forth bills to improve, rather than replace, the contract guard programs. In a member update, the National Association of Security Companies put its stamp of approval on the bills and said neither effort “would have really done much to affect” business.

With the bills under consideration, National Association of Security Companies Executive Director Steve Amitay, who also serves as a lobbyist for ASIS International, and other industry officials met several times with officials from the Government Accountability Office and Federal Protective Service, according to ASIS International’s nonprofit disclosure documents. Ultimately, none of the federalization efforts passed.

Big security companies lobbied hard as well. Securitas retained Venable LLP, a law firm known for hiring former lawmakers. Between 2001 and 2004, Lungren served as a partner in the firm but did not lobby for the security industry.

Then Lungren left Venable and became a Republican congressman. It was as a member of the House Homeland Security Committee that he fought the proposals to federalize the security positions and worked on Federal Protection Service and Department of Homeland Security legislation, efforts that were cited favorably by the industry.

“The government security contractor community has no better friend in Congress than Dan Lungren,” Amitay, with the National Association of Security Companies, wrote to members in 2012. “Keeping him in Congress (overseeing and writing legislation related to the FPS and other DHS agencies) should be a priority for all government security contractors.”  

In 2012, the National Association of Security Companies and ASIS International supported a bill co-sponsored by Lungren and others that would have amended the Private Security Officer Employment Authorization Act to allow third-party organizations to conduct FBI checks in states that do not provide access to FBI records. Again, the checks would not be mandatory. But the bill failed to make it out of committee. Lungren was voted out of office in 2013. Another form of the bill currently is being considered.

For some, efforts to reform the industry appear hopeless.

“We tried so hard after 9/11 to say, ‘Look, it’s time,’ ” said Bill Cunningham, one of the authors of the first big industry study in 1985. “The security industry, with all its facets, is probably three times larger than public law enforcement. They’re an integral part of the protection of this nation. It went nowhere in the Bush administration or the Obama administration. I’ve seen no interest.”

Former CIR reporter Ryan Gabrielson, former CIR intern Caroline Chen and reporter Rachael Bale contributed to this story. Gabrielson now works for ProPublica. This story was edited by Robert Salladay and Narda Zacchino and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.

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

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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.