Public safety at risk from private protectors
By James Alan Fox
Monday, November 14, 2005

What distinguishes private security officers from the criminals and trespassers from whom they supposedly protect us? All too often, it's much too little.

The lack of adequate screening, training and supervision in the field of private protective services, an expanding industry that employs three times as many officers as do municipal police departments, is shameful and perilous. With apologies to those sharing my surname: It appears that the fox is guarding the hen house; and, worse, the fox may be armed.

The Herald has reported on incidents implicating Alliance Detective and Security Services Inc., of Everett: a 2003 triple-murder/suicide in Brockton; the fatal shooting last year of a South Ender over a parking violation; and an episode six weeks ago in which a Dorchester man was beaten and his family terrorized at their Grove Hall residence. Unfortunately, Alliance's problems are not unique in the poorly-regulated security field.

In Milwaukee, for example, an employee of Securitas was charged with defrauding and then killing an elderly couple he had befriended through his job as a bank security officer. And despite felony convictions, a guard hired by another Milwaukee security outfit fatally shot a man suspected of stealing sunglasses at Walgreen's.

Earlier this year, the Washington, D.C., inspector general researched the backgrounds of 30 school security officers chosen randomly from the 400 private guards licensed by the city's police department. Eight of the 30 had criminal records, including arrests for cocaine possession and assault. Last year, Illinois granted a guard license to a leader of the Black Disciples gang despite a felony firearms conviction on his record.

The good news is that an amendment folded into the Intelligence Reform Act of 2004 permits private security firms access, through state licensing agencies, to FBI data on criminal histories and outstanding warrants of their applicants. The not-so-good news is that the process is strictly voluntary with the expense borne by the requesting security firm. A few states mandate that an FBI check be performed for all private security hires; Massachusetts is not one of them.

As police department budgets are being slashed and demands for services are increasing in response to terrorist threats, private security firms are being asked to do more to protect us. The same standards of selection and training used in public law enforcement must be extended to the private sector.

But pressured to fill multiple openings, private companies may hire applicants who have been rejected for more prestigious police posts.

Enhancing the recruitment, screening and training of security officers will do little, of course, to assuage the family of Israel Vasquez-Robles, the South End man fatally shot at close range by an Alliance guard. Adding insult to injury, the episode was declared justifiable by Suffolk County District Attorney Dan Conley.

In this country, several hundred suspected felons are killed each year by public and private police officers, many times more than the number of convicted felons executed through state-sponsored death penalties. In essence, justifiable killings by cops and guards are "insta-executions."

While we debate endlessly about the appropriateness of capital punishment - a sanction meted out through a deliberate, albeit often flawed, process, we are far too quick to overlook and excuse first-responder executions by those whose background and training may be less than suitable for making such quick, life-and-death decisions.

James Alan Fox is the Lipman Family Professor of Criminal Justice at Northeastern University. Talk back at