Armed security guards have become a ubiquitous presence in modern life, projecting an image of safety amid public fears of mass shootings and terrorism. But often, it’s the guards themselves who pose the threat.
Across the U.S., a haphazard system of lax laws, minimal oversight and almost no accountability puts guns in the hands of guards who endanger public safety, a yearlong investigation by The Center for Investigative Reporting and CNN has found.
Men and women who have never fired a gun in their lives can set off on patrol in uniform, wearing a badge and carrying a loaded weapon, with only a few hours of training, if any. In 15 states, guards can openly carry guns on the job without any firearms training at all.
The results can be as tragic as they are predictable.
Near Atlanta, a former sheriff’s deputy accused of erratic and threatening behavior at his old job later gunned down an unarmed man at his new job – patrolling an apartment complex. In Arizona, an armed guard prohibited by law from possessing a gun shot a teenager who was helping shoplift food from a convenience store, paralyzing the teen from the waist down.
Outside a Miami nightclub in 2012, an armed guard opened fire on two unarmed African American men he thought were menacing and reaching for guns. One man was killed and the other was left paralyzed.
After his arrest, the shooter was diagnosed with a variety of psychological disorders, including exhibiting schizophrenic and psychotic behavior. Comparing himself to George Zimmerman – the man who shot and killed unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin that same year – the former guard, who is white, told a psychiatrist that his arrest was a conspiracy created by the black community.
Only a handful of states require a mental health examination for armed security guards – Florida is not among them.
When security guards shoot their guns, few regulators seem to care. In a dozen states, armed security guards or their employers are required to report when they have fired a gun on the job. This critical information can be used to judge whether a guard is reckless. But despite clear evidence from media and police reports, many shootings go unreported to regulators – and when they are, officials seldom take action.
“We need to get this out … to the public, so they can realize it’s a danger out there.” — Guard trainer Steve Caballero
In Louisiana, regulators received eight reports of security guard-related shootings between 2007 and 2013; they investigated none of those. North Carolina regulators collected 36 reports but investigated and disciplined one guard for not being registered to carry a firearm. Georgia said it collected four reports between 2008 and 2013, even though media and law enforcement reports show at least two dozen shootings by security guards, including incidents that led to 23 injuries and deaths.
Few private-sector jobs carry as much risk for violence and harm as the armed security industry. The federal government estimates about a million people work as security guards – nearly double the number of police officers – but it’s impossible to know exactly how many carry guns to work because labor officials do not distinguish between armed and unarmed guards.
It’s clear that the vast majority of armed security guards – many of whom work long hours for minimum wage – do their jobs without resorting to violence or breaking regulations. Their very presence at a business may deter crime. Among the thousands of security companies, big and small, most operate by following the rules and training their guards to state requirements.
Yet across the country, states do little to regulate the hired guns assigned to protect property, according to the CIR investigation with CNN, which included dozens of interviews and an analysis of thousands of pages of disciplinary records, licensing databases and shooting reports.
Fourteen states do not license or issue permits to armed security guard applicants. And nine states do not conduct a federal criminal background check, allowing anyone to work in the field regardless of his or her history, including potentially dangerous individuals, such as domestic abusers and felons.
Few states make any attempt to check whether guard applicants have abused drugs or alcohol or exhibit mental health problems and a predilection for violence. More than two dozen states do not check whether security guard applicants are prohibited by court order from possessing guns.
Background checks conducted by CIR identified armed guards with criminal records, restraining orders and domestic violence-related convictions that were overlooked before they were given permission to work in the security industry. A review of records in four states – Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, California and Illinois – revealed that regulators sometimes took months or years to discipline armed guards charged with or convicted of violent crimes, including armed robbery and arms dealing.
Another class of guards gets even less scrutiny from regulators – so-called proprietary guards. While security companies provide guards under contract to clients, proprietary guards are employed directly by businesses, from major retail chain stores to bars and neighborhood tow yards. Because these guards do not work for security guard companies, 31 states do not require them to have a license, get training or go through a criminal background check.
Across the states, the rules for getting a license vary widely. Some states issue a special armed guard license, registration or card. Other states license security guards and issue a separate firearms permit. In states where there is no licensing process, some companies or cities, such as Denver, impose their own rules.
This hodgepodge of rules and regulations has developed despite evidence that armed guards may increase the risk of violence, something the insurance and banking industries have noted for years. A statistical analysis of the FBI’s bank robbery database conducted by CIR shows that during a bank robbery, the likelihood of a violent outcome more than tripled when an armed guard was present.
For decades, researchers have warned security companies about the risks of using armed guards. Beginning in 1968, a series of federally funded researchers found that the security guard industry was plagued by poor or nonexistent training. In 1971, researchers with the Rand Corp. recommended guards receive a minimum of 120 hours of training, not including instruction in the use of firearms.
Today, no state that regulates the industry comes close to meeting the training standards recommended by the country’s largest membership group for security guards, the International Foundation for Protection Officers.
“We need to get this out there to the public, so they can realize it’s a danger out there,” said Steve Caballero, a security guard trainer who helped write California’s firearms training manual. “And that’s in the form of an untrained security officer with a gun.”
The lack of uniform standards among the states also concerns security company owners with guards working across state lines.
“Because there’s not uniform training, some of these guys are just dopes. But in reality, they’re the first responders,” said Lisa Dolan, CEO of Securit, a company that employs armed guards in 12 states. “Wouldn’t it make more sense to have uniformity?”
A series of police shootings has focused national attention on the way police use their guns. Security guards carry the same weapons and often are mistaken for officers of the law. But they have little of the training or authority that law enforcement officers do.
Many law enforcement officers themselves go into the security profession as a second career or to make some extra cash. But Oregon stands alone among states in checking whether an applicant with law enforcement experience has been fired for egregious behavior on the job, making that person unsuitable for armed guard employment. Still, the state has never rejected an applicant because of a questionable police record, according to officials there.
In Waupun, Wisconsin, Driftten Kitzman lost his job as a corrections officer after investigators determined he had beaten an inmate who was lying handcuffed on the floor. After nearly a decade with the state Department of Corrections and nine internal affairs investigations, Kitzman was convicted of battery in criminal court.
The beating occurred in July 2010, after an inmate talked back to another corrections officer, according to internal affairs reports. After the inmate was escorted to a room outside the view of other inmates, Kitzman slammed the inmate to the floor. Another officer helped Kitzman restrain the 5-foot-8-inch, 157-pound man until he no longer was resisting.
Blood from the inmate’s mouth pooled on the floor, according to the reports. As four other officers watched, Kitzman pummeled the inmate in the side at least seven times.
“They were loud thumps,” one of the officers, Tiffany Oertel, later told investigators. “I was in shock.”
Investigators found that Kitzman – who did not respond to requests for comment – had acted improperly. After a lengthy investigation, prosecutors charged him with battery, misconduct and abuse of a resident of a penal facility. He was fired from the Department of Corrections in September 2010. That month, he applied for a license to work as a guard.
Under Wisconsin law, regulators could have chosen to disqualify Kitzman due to his misconduct. But regulators told CIR that they didn’t check those records. When they asked on his application form whether he had any criminal charges pending, Kitzman noted that he didn’t. He went to work as an armed guard for the Wisconsin-based security company SPS International Corp.
His former employer at SPS International, Shannon Haggett, recalled Kitzman as “a straight shooter, like a chiseled law enforcement stereotypical type of guy.” The two worked together in high-crime neighborhoods in Milwaukee.
“He had some brawn to him, but he never stepped outside of his box on me,” he said.
Despite his good memories of Kitzman, Haggett said regulators should stop granting licenses to former law enforcement officers with questionable records.
“It’s pretty easy to become a security officer, provided you’re not a felon or child molester,” he said. “When these guys get fired from these police departments, it doesn’t stop them.”
More than a year later, regulators discovered that Kitzman had been convicted of battery and that he had lied on his application. In an order dated March 2012, regulators wrote that Kitzman had concealed information and “engaged in conduct which reflects adversely on his professional qualification.”
They suspended Kitzman’s license for 30 days. After paying a $270 fine, regulators told Kitzman, he could resume working as an armed guard.
Prohibited possessors get guard jobs
Anyone who purchases a gun from a licensed firearms dealer is required to go through a background check to determine whether he or she has lost the right to bear arms. But 27 states do not check whether armed-guard applicants are in this federal database and prohibited from carrying a gun. The database of prohibited possessors includes categories such as restraining orders or mental health commitments that do not usually appear in a routine FBI background check.
If Arizona had required regulators to check the prohibited possessors database, Joshua Kosatschenko might not have received his license. And he might not have begun work as an armed guard at a Tucson Circle K convenience store where, six weeks later, he shot and paralyzed an unarmed teenager.
The incident took place in 2009, after Daniel Tarango, then 18, drove several friends to the store. He waited in the car while they grabbed three bean-and-cheese burritos, a bag of Cheetos and Hot Pockets and fled without paying. Kosatschenko, who was working with another security guard that night, chased them.
When Tarango tried to drive away, Kosatschenko shot him three times. Kosatschenko told police that Tarango was going to run over the other guard, but the detectives and second guard said he was never in danger.
In a court deposition related to the case, Kosatschenko said the shooting was justified – his job was to “to arrest shoplifters for anything, period.” When asked if he thought it was smart to chase after the Circle K shoplifters, he replied: “I wouldn’t necessarily say it was smart or not smart.”
Kosatschenko, then 19, was prohibited from possessing firearms due to a juvenile criminal record for assault and possession of a deadly weapon on school grounds at age 11 and aggravated assault with a deadly weapon at age 13. Although the crimes occurred when he was a juvenile, his prohibition to possess a gun was still in effect. But state regulators did not check the database when they licensed Kosatschenko.
“We never thought to ask anybody, ‘Are you a prohibited possessor?’ We figured this kid would know he’s not supposed to have a weapon,” said Kim Karbon-Sines, the former supervisor of the state Department of Public Safety’s Licensing Unit. “We did not know until after that incident.”
After the shooting, the department added a box to the security guard form, which now asks whether the applicant is a prohibited possessor. However, Capt. Steve Enteman, who leads the compliance and information services bureau of the Arizona Department of Public Safety, said the state still does not check that database.
Tarango uses a wheelchair and lives with his wife and two children in Tucson. In an interview at his home, he said he makes no excuse for being at the convenience store but still can’t believe he almost was killed over stealing some food.
“I just want to know that when I’m gone that my kids are going to be safe, that whenever they are out somewhere,” he said, “if they make a bad decision like kids do, that they won’t be punished as severely as I was.”
Charges against Kosatschenko of attempted murder and aggravated assault were dropped, and he was convicted of illegally possessing a firearm. He lost his armed guard license. He and his employer, Valley Protective Services, declined to be interviewed.
As recently as this year, Kosatschenko still worked at Valley Protective Services, where, according to his LinkedIn account, he is the hiring manager and a corporate trainer.
States responsible for setting regulations
Each state is left on its own to regulate security guards. There are no federal training standards for guards, no national database of armed guards and no way to tell how many have used their guns recklessly.
In 2013, armed and unarmed security guards earned an average of $27,550 per year, about the same as barbers and receptionists, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The meager wages and sometimes dangerous working conditions contribute to high turnover.
“You can make more working at In-N-Out and Starbucks than you can protecting someone’s life and property.” — Guard Brian Oxley
From August 2012 to December 2013, for example, Securitas, the largest security company in North America, employed nearly 23,000 guards in California alone. By the end of that period, the company had fired and replaced one-third of them, according to information supplied by the company in a lawsuit over allegations of unpaid overtime.
“You can make more working at In-N-Out and Starbucks than you can protecting someone’s life and property,” said Brian Oxley, an armed guard who patrols public housing complexes in San Francisco and has completed a reserve officer training program.
From training to equipment, guards have fewer tools at their disposal than police officers, who come with backup, arrest authority and myriad weapons. Many companies expect guards to arm themselves. And in most states, there is no requirement that armed guards carry anything – such as pepper spray – other than a firearm. As a result, guards have few options in the face of threats. They can shoot, or they can run.
“My pants, my shirt, my badge, my nameplate, my gun, my radio, my baton – every single piece of equipment I’m wearing right now, I purchased,” Oxley said. “You’ve got a guy making $10 an hour. You expect that guy to do that? No.”
Steve Amitay, a lobbyist and executive director of the National Association of Security Companies, said the industry is plagued by such high turnover that many states don’t want to bother conducting background checks.
“The problem is the states don’t have the resources, don’t have the time. And some states don’t want to do it,” he said. “You have this situation where you have Sheriff Bubba, after he quits being a sheriff, decides to open his own security firm. He doesn’t have to do anything and can hire whoever – maybe some former convicts that he knew. That’s a big problem for these states who don’t have any type of licensing or regulation.”
The legal limitations of armed guards often are lost on the public. Many gun-toting guards patrol public and private property, enforce laws and rules, and wear uniforms, influencing the public perception that they hold power akin to law enforcement.
But there are many differences between guards and law enforcement officers, including the fact that, by and large, guards have no more arrest authority than anyone else. Generally, armed guards, like any other person, can make a so-called citizen’s arrest. When they’ve personally witnessed a crime, they must call police to take a suspect into custody.
Police officers, on the other hand, are accountable to public – not private – entities. And they enjoy wide-ranging powers to enforce criminal and traffic laws, make arrests and detainments, serve warrants, and conduct searches and seizures. They may use coercive force to make an arrest. Armed guards, with some exceptions, may not.
“A lot of private security officers look just like a police officer would look,” said Linsay Hale, director of the Professional Standards Division at the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training. “You get these situations where, perhaps in a crowd, something happens and they turn to the private security person who looks like a police officer for action, and they have little authority to do anything.”
Lapses in oversight come as the demand for armed guards continues to grow. States are licensing more armed guards than ever and demanding their presence in public life, including at transportation terminals, nuclear power plants, government buildings and schools.
In 2013, South Dakota enacted a law allowing teachers and guards to carry guns in schools after 80 hours of training, but the state has yet to pass a law requiring guards who work outside of schools to go through training or background checks. In Virginia, a recent law allows guards to carry firearms in day care centers and private and religious schools. This year, Michigan joined many states in passing a law authorizing guards at nuclear power plants to use deadly force “to deter intruders, thieves or saboteurs” without fear of liability. The state hasn’t set minimum licensing and training requirements for armed guards.
Some state agencies are issuing licenses at accelerated rates. In Virginia, there was a 434 percent increase in licenses between 2008 and 2013 – to 10,342. In Louisiana, the number has increased by 1,156 percent in the same time period – to 4,610 last year. In California, licensing authorities issued firearm permits to 11,768 security guards in 2012, a 35 percent increase over 2008.
Amid this growth,many security executives, trainers and guards believe most state standards are ineffective and too low, contributing to an expendable, undertrained workforce.
“To me, it makes absolutely no sense to have a minimum-wage guard responsible for multimillion-dollar critical infrastructure,” said Jeffrey Slotnick, a security consultant who leads a security council for ASIS International, the country’s largest industry group for security executives and managers. “Get rid of them. You’re better off without them.”
Background checks aren’t thorough
A majority of states – 41 – require armed-guard applicants to go through FBI background checks, but CIR found the checks in many states are far from thorough, plagued by delays, gaps in criminal records databases and bureaucratic inefficiencies. In several states, guards convicted of violent crimes kept their licenses for months or even years, allowing them to find work easily as hired guns.
On average, Wisconsin regulators took a little more than a year to revoke the licenses of armed guards convicted of serious crimes, while Pennsylvania regulators took an average of two and a half years to revoke an armed guard license after a conviction, from illegally selling firearms to sexual abuse of children.
Illinois regulators took even longer. CIR examined disciplinary records in the state to find all cases involving guards with firearms. On average, it took regulators more than three years to discipline guards after they had been arrested for or convicted of firearm-related offenses or crimes.
The delay is because Illinois conducts one background check on armed guards – when they initially are licensed. Afterward, a guard can work for years without scrutiny.
“The only background check that occurs is on the initial application,” said Sue Hofer, spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation. “We don’t have the resources to monitor every single guard.”
“To be in a prison in the morning and that afternoon be an armed officer is crazy. … Without standards, things run amok.” — Ira Lipman, Guardsmark founder and president
While some states, such as Arizona, issue emergency license suspensions when a guard is arrested or charged in a violent crime, most states do nothing, allowing armed guards cycling slowly through the legal system to continue working, even if they are a danger to themselves or others.
In Illinois, as well as Wisconsin, no law requires the courts or state law enforcement agency to notify regulators about new arrests or convictions for guards who carry guns. Regulators are forced to rely on the initiative of prosecutors or police, news reports or the guards themselves.
“It’s something the Legislature would have to take up and require either the Department of Justice or law enforcement to send us that report,” said Hannah Zillmer, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Safety and Professional Services. “The only way we could require that is by law.”
The challenge is similar in California, where state law requires courts to forward conviction information to the state Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, but regulators said the courts rarely notify them.
“That presumes that the court clerks and the courts know that a licensee has been convicted,” said Russ Heimerich, spokesman for the California Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the security bureau. “A lot of times, somebody who’s been convicted, their occupation never comes up. They don’t know enough to notify us.”
Different rules for proprietary guards
One of the complications regarding regulations is the gray area of proprietary guards – guards hired directly by businesses, such as retail chain stores, rather than through security companies. In 31 states, armed proprietary guards are not required to get a license, training or go through a background check.
In Georgia, where state law does not require proprietary guards to be licensed, Marvin Copeland got a job working as an armed guard at his brother’s auto parts yard in Fulton County. Tall and gaunt, Copeland had a history of felony convictions, including for armed robbery and aggravated assault, and had recently served time in prison. He stayed at the auto yard overnight with his dog, Boss, to ward off trespassers.
One night in 2012, Daniel Exum, 26, broke into the office around 2 a.m., spotted Copeland and fled through the unlit yard to a waiting car. Copeland fired shots at him, later claiming it was too dark to see what happened.
“I was actually trying to scare them off. I wasn’t actually trying to hit anybody,” Copeland later told a detective. “I was shaking like a newborn tree.”
Upon daylight, Copeland’s brother found Exum dead, shot in the back, his body splayed on the ground. Copeland turned himself in to police and was convicted of involuntary manslaughter and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Regulators have attempted to pass licensing requirements for proprietary guards in many states. But associations representing the businesses that hire security guards have lobbied heavily against them, arguing that training standards would add costs and drive business to contract security companies.
But Ira Lipman, founder and president of Guardsmark, which in the 1990s pushed for federal legislation to set minimum training and vetting requirements for guards, said his company remains committed to reform for the industry. He’s astonished by the ease with which applicants with a criminal background in various states can get a license.
“To be in a prison in the morning and that afternoon be an armed officer is crazy,” Lipman said. “There’s a great need for standards. Without standards, things run amok.”
Former CIR intern Caroline Chen and CIR reporters Rachael Bale and Matt Drange contributed to this story. CNN senior investigative producer Scott Zamost and CNN senior investigative correspondent Drew Griffin also contributed. The Mintz Group provided research help. Ryan Gabrielson now works for ProPublica. It was edited by Robert Salladay and Narda Zacchino and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.