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Criminal Justice

Spotlight on police violence doesn’t include armed security guards

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Recent protests have ignited a national debate about police violence, renewing concerns about the lack of national data on officer-involved shootings.

Last week, Congress passed a bill requiring law enforcement agencies that receive certain federal grants to file quarterly reports on in-custody deaths. The bill is awaiting President Barack Obama’s signature.

But another group of law enforcers operates under even more secrecy: armed security guards.

The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN recently released a yearlong investigation into these hired guns, who often wear uniforms and badges. While some might look and act like police officers, they are equipped with far less training and subjected to far less oversight.

For example, only 12 states require guards or their employers to report security guard-involved shootings to state regulators. In the rest of the country, guard licensing agencies have no clue how many security guards (or even which security guards) are firing their guns.

CIR reviewed shooting reports from six states and found companies and guards frequently fail to file the reports. When they do report the shootings, state regulators in at least four of the states hardly investigated them. As a result, those who recklessly fired their guns remained licensed as armed guards, easily able to find new jobs as guards with guns.

Certainly, in cases of injury or death, law enforcement agencies investigate the shootings to determine whether a crime was committed.

But compare this to how officer-involved shootings are investigated: Anytime a law enforcement officer shoots his or her gun, the department’s internal affairs unit opens an investigation, often alongside investigations by a prosecutor and an outside oversight agency. Pending an outcome of those probes, the officer usually is pulled off the streets.

An armed guard, on the other hand, can go back to work immediately. And guards rarely face an assessment of whether they acted safely and should remain licensed as armed guards.

With many state licensing agencies issuing more armed-guard licenses than ever, the kind of security guard shooting reports we reviewed have never been more important. They provide the only lens into the safety record of individual guards. 

But few people, if any, are watching.

This story was edited by Amy Pyle and copy edited by Nikki Frick.

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