Security guard Teng Xiong unholstered his gun and hesitated. It was dark, past business hours on July 5, 2008, in the Little Saigon neighborhood of Sacramento, California, and a fight was unfolding quickly under blurry yellow streetlights.
Xiong and Golden Dragon Patrol supervisor Moua Vang had begun fighting with two young men who refused to leave a shopping center parking lot. Xiong, who was 25 at the time, pulled himself away from the fight and watched as Vang wrestled one man to the ground. Amid the chaos, another guard called 911, and Sacramento police sped to the scene.
As it became clear his supervisor was losing the fight, Xiong aimed his gun.
Fellow guard Anh “Lucky” Le recalled vividly what happened next: Vang “kept saying, ‘Shoot him. Shoot him.’ ”
Xiong pulled the trigger, sending a bullet through 19-year-old Randy Hernandez’s mouth. After paramedics arrived, an ambulance took Hernandez to the hospital. He survived.
As required by law, Xiong reported the shooting to the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, the California agency that oversees the security guard industry. His report didn’t mention that his supervisor had ordered him to shoot. Nor did he mention that he wasn’t carrying a baton or pepper spray, making his gun his only weapon, records show.
But he had done his duty by informing state regulators about the incident.
After receiving Xiong’s report, the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services never contacted him. Regulators filed the report away. Xiong never faced criminal charges or questions about whether he should remain licensed as an armed guard. Xiong’s bosses invited him back to work.
The Xiong case illustrates a persistent problem in oversight of the armed security industry: Regulators repeatedly ignore or fail to thoroughly investigate guard-related shootings, leaving inadequately trained, traumatized or potentially dangerous guards on the job.
Every shooting by a law enforcement officer is investigated, usually by internal affairs or the district attorney’s office. But across the country, only 12 states require security guards or their employers to report the use of their guns. And regulatory agencies monitoring armed security guards rarely discipline them or their companies for not reporting a shooting.
Guards and their employers have failed to report dozens of shootings to state regulators, depriving the public of critical information to judge their safety records, according to an analysis by The Center for Investigative Reporting.
In the 12 states that require discharge reports, the reports on file describe security guards shooting at fleeing suspects, shoplifters and moving cars and into crowded shopping malls, apartment complexes and parking lots.
But that’s where the reports usually end – stuck in a file cabinet deep in a state bureaucracy. In the rest of the country, when an armed security guard uses his or her weapon, no report is filed, no evidence is collected and no investigation takes place.
To analyze whether state regulators are paying attention to guard-related shootings, CIR examined thousands of pages of gun discharge reports from a sample of six states – Florida, Virginia, Louisiana, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Georgia – and found that only Florida and Virginia routinely investigate security guard-related shootings.
Rather than assess a guard’s actions, many regulators rely on criminal investigations to determine whether each guard acted within the law. They wait until a case has wound its way slowly through the criminal justice system. Then, if a guard is arrested and convicted of a crime, they take action.
“We take action on the convictions,” said Laura Alarcon, chief of California’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services. “If the Department of Justice says this person should not possess a firearm, the firearm permit is revoked.”
In Georgia, state regulators claimed to have received four reports between 2008 and 2013. Yet news reports compiled by CIR show at least 25 shootings by security guards during that time period, including incidents that led to 23 injuries or deaths.
In Minnesota, regulators told CIR that they had no record of ever having received a shooting report, despite the state law requiring them to publish annual statistics. Regulators in Georgia, Wisconsin and Louisiana collected fewer reports in that same period combined than did North Carolina, which collected 36.
Some states are more vigilant about finding and collecting reports: Regulators in Florida and Virginia regularly comb news reports for security guard-related shootings.
Investigators in both states made attempts to gather police reports and interview witnesses, even if they did little to punish guards or their employers. In Virginia, regulators fined guards $100 for not reporting a shooting and sometimes issued no punishment at all.
But in some cases, to protect the public, they took immediate action. In 2008, for example, Florida regulators received a report of a guard who shot a bicycle thief at a Shell gas station in Orlando. Before police had completed their criminal investigation, licensing authorities met with the guard and persuaded him to surrender his license.
Sacramento fight escalates to shooting
The July 5, 2008, shooting in Sacramento, California, was the kind of incident that any security guard regulator should want to investigate, especially because Xiong was a relatively inexperienced guard. He’d gotten his firearm permit two years earlier, after working at a gas station. And by Xiong’s own admission, according to testimony in a civil court case, he had not kept up with his required firearms training.
For Hernandez, the shooting was the violent conclusion of a bad night. Hernandez, his brother and two friends were driving around trying to find a nightclub when the California Highway Patrol pulled them over and arrested the driver, one of the friends, for driving under the influence.
Officers towed the car and refused to let Hernandez, his brother and the remaining friend borrow a cellphone, according to court depositions of the officers and brothers. Finding the trio were not under the influence of drugs or alcohol, officers decided not to arrest them and told them to leave and pointed to a nearby gas station near a strip mall.
Hernandez spotted a car parked down the road. Inside was an unarmed guard working for Golden Dragon Patrol, Le, who was 25 at the time. He let Hernandez borrow his cellphone. When Hernandez couldn’t reach anyone, the trio offered Le $20 to give them a ride back home to Stockton.
“Sometimes I’m thankful to just still be alive. That’s all that matters.” — Shooting victim Randy Hernandez
Le wouldn’t do it – he was on duty and felt pressured by their request, he told police and CIR in an interview. He worried they might try to steal his car. He drove across the street and told Xiong and his supervisor, then-26-year-old Vang, that three men had approached him and refused to leave.
Immediately, Le recalled in a deposition, Xiong and Vang sped over in their patrol car, approaching the trio aggressively. Tensions escalated when Vang questioned whether Hernandez was really stranded and threatened to call police. The brothers grew angry.
Le said Vang welcomed the fight, saying “something loud like, ‘You guys want some of this?’ Or, ‘Do you want to fight or something?’ ”
Le did not see who threw the first punch, but suddenly, the Hernandez brothers and the two armed guards were fighting.
Xiong, realizing they were in trouble, backed away from the fight and pulled out his gun. In a deposition, Xiong recalled Vang yelling for help. Le remembers the supervisor telling Xiong to shoot.
“And I was like, ‘Oh man, I don’t know what to do,’ ” Xiong recalled. He said he yelled three times: “Stop, or I’ll shoot.”
When they didn’t stop, Xiong said he aimed at Randy Hernandez and fired.
The bullet tore through Hernandez’s skin, shattering part of his jaw and some teeth, partially severing his tongue and embedding bullet fragments in his neck. That night, he was taken to a hospital, where he remained for months. He lost his job at a nursing home.
When police arrived, Xiong placed his gun on the hood of the car and told an officer that he’d shot someone.
“Am I going to get handcuffed or what?” Xiong later would testify that he asked the officer. “And he says, ‘No. You got any injuries?’ ”
Now 26 years old, Hernandez lives in Stockton with his brother and cares for his 4-year-old daughter. He struggles with memories of that night in 2008 and pain in his jaw from the shooting.
Underneath his scarred skin are steel plates. When it’s cold outside, his bones ache. When he speaks, his tongue sounds glued to the roof of his mouth.
“Sometimes I’m thankful to just still be alive. That’s all that matters,” he said in an interview. “Now when I walk past them or see anybody who has a security uniform on, I get nervous. I don’t feel like they’re going to protect me.”
Xiong declined to speak about the case, but he testified about the shooting in a civil lawsuit Hernandez later filed. A judge in the suit ruled that the guards “improperly used deadly force resulting in catastrophic injury,” allowing Hernandez to pursue punitive damages in the case. The lawsuit was settled in 2012.
The owners of Golden Dragon Patrol did not return phone calls seeking comment.
Shaken by the experience, Xiong said in his testimony that he quit working as an armed guard. He told lawyers that he was traumatized.
“I just, you know, I almost taken a life,” he said during a deposition. “I’m not the type of person that would, you know, like to go shoot people like that.”
Vang, the supervisor, returned to Golden Dragon. He did not return calls seeking comment. Xiong returned to work as an unarmed guard, working fewer hours. He said he never received a call from state regulators about the shooting.
Today, Le is still an unarmed guard in Sacramento, working for another company. He said he feels guilt over what happened and wishes he had never called over Vang and Xiong for help.
“I don’t fight. I’m scared of that type of stuff. I’m here to protect the property, here to call the cops and let the cops deal with that type of stuff, not me,” Le said in an interview with CIR. “I thought I called them over to help me stop the problem, not to fight or jump into it.”
Little public scrutiny, despite laws
For many years, armed guards were considered minor players in the security industry. Concerns about low training standards and oversight, beginning in the 1970s, prompted a series of laws and regulations, including the requirement that guards report use of their guns to state regulators.
Minnesota passed such a law in 1979; Georgia, in 1985. In 1994, lawmakers in North Carolina wrote that collecting the reports would allow regulators to track guards’ “use and misuse of firearms.”
But armed guards who use their guns face little public scrutiny. Three states – Illinois, Oklahoma and California – denied CIR’s requests for their gun discharge reports, citing state laws that exempt investigative records from public disclosure.
In many cases, security guard-related shootings detailed by the news media never were reported to regulators. CIR found more news reports than discharge reports in Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin. When they do file reports, some guards who used their guns recklessly received little more than a slap on the wrist.
Many of the reports detailed shootings that straddled a fine line between comical ineptitude and tragedy.
In 2012 at the Virginia National Guard’s Mullins Armory, a security guard was trying to remove a round from his gun when it accidentally went off, punching a hole in the reception desk and air conditioning unit.
Instead of reporting the discharge, he attempted to drywall and paint over the gunshot, then told supervisors that he had “fallen and accidentally punched a hole through the front of the lobby desk with his pen.” Supervisors discovered the deception and reported the accidental discharge to the state. The guard was fined $200.
In North Carolina, regulators received 36 shooting reports from 2008 to 2013, more than CIR was able to find through news reports. But the agency did not investigate any of them.
Instead, state regulators looked for administrative violations, such as whether the guard received the legally required training, was registered to carry a weapon or reported the shooting within the legally mandated time frame.
“If it goes to the local court and the judge finds he or she guilty of a crime, then the board may or may not take action against the person’s registration,” said Anthony Bonapart, deputy director of North Carolina’s Private Protective Services Board.
I got here in 2008,” he said. “We haven’t had one of those.”
In Louisiana, regulators failed to investigate any of the eight shootings reported over an eight-year period. Wayne Rogillio, executive secretary of the state’s Board of Private Security Examiners, said his agency is burdened by limited resources, including having only two investigators – one full time and one part time – on staff.
Like many regulators, the Louisiana agency waits to take action on a conviction or relies on companies to fire guards who needlessly shoot their guns. When that happens, Rogillio said, there’s no need for regulators to conduct an investigation.
“A lot of times, the company will discharge that person who fired the weapon,” Rogillio said. “That eliminates it going any further for us.”
Despite the intent of the laws, in some states, regulators keep information about security guard shootings hidden from public view.
California, for example, refused to release its reports to CIR, citing state law that allows public agencies to withhold investigative records. But even if the agency chose to release the reports, regulators said they would be unable to provide them. The reports are not tracked or counted, but housed in individual files.
“The only way to find these is to go through each license file and see if there is an incident report in the file, which would constitute an overly burdensome request,” said Russ Heimerich, a spokesman for the Department of Consumer Affairs, which oversees the state’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services.
In Georgia, police personnel files are considered public records, but regulators routinely withhold similar records on security guard shootings, including those that resulted in deaths and criminal investigations.
For example, Georgia regulators refused to release their investigations of fatal shootings by guards from one particular company in 2011 and 2012.
In the span of three months, two Shepperson Security & Escort Service guards who had left their assigned properties were involved in separate shooting deaths of two teenagers. Records show neither shooting was reported to regulators by the firm or the guards.
In the first case, a guard in Atlanta shot a teen in the back, killing him, after the youth fled a gunfight in which he reportedly was involved. The guard, who said he felt threatened, was not charged.
Less than three months later, in Decatur, Shepperson guards Curtis Scott and Gary Jackson, allegedly pretending to be law enforcement officers, left their post at an apartment complex to detain a car full of teenage girls, taking photos of their IDs, according to police reports.
The guards didn’t know the girls were waiting for Precious Jefferson, a classmate they were planning to fight over an insult she’d posted on Facebook. But Jefferson knew; she was driving up to her house with her mother and older brother, 18-year-old Ervin, and spotted the girls. Ervin Jefferson, deciding to come to his sister’s aid, rushed angrily toward them while his stepfather, 35, emerged from the house, firing his gun into the air.
“If you get pulled over for driving without a license, you’re going to jail. But you can carry a weapon and shoot someone to death, and it’s swept under the rug.” — Ervin Jefferson Sr., father of shooting victim Ervin Jefferson
The light was dim. The shots were sudden. All Scott and Jackson saw was the fast-approaching Ervin Jefferson, shirtless and angry, according to police interviews with the guards.
“It happened so quickly,” Jackson told detectives. “I didn’t see a gun in his hand.”
Scott shot the teenager in the chest, killing him. Jackson, who was not licensed to carry a firearm and was not allowed to carry a gun on the job, shot several times in the direction of the gunfire.
Police arrested the guards for impersonating police officers; they quickly posted bail. The investigation soon shifted from the teen’s death to his stepfather, Bobby Hubbard Jr., who had a felony record.
“Based on the actions of Bobby Hubbard, the case against Curtis Scott and Gary Jackson pertaining to the shooting death of Ervin Jefferson has been closed/cleared as justified,” detectives wrote in their case notes.
In October of this year, Hubbard pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and being a convicted felon in possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to two years in prison. The guards’ charges of impersonating an officer were dropped this year.
In an interview with CIR, Scott said that the shooting was self-defense and that he never should have been charged with a crime. He said he believed Ervin Jefferson was shooting at him.
“It was actually traumatizing,” he said. “I feared for my life. I felt like I was going to get shot. I felt like I was going to die that day. I was scared out of my mind. I was scared for my partner, I was scared for the other citizens that was down there in the cul-de-sac with us. So, I mean, they was shooting at us. There’s nothing left to do but shoot back.”
The shootings played out prominently in the local news, most likely drawing the attention of the state oversight board; regulators told CIR and local reporters that they conducted an investigation. But it is unclear what disciplinary action, if any, regulators took against the company.
According to minutes from a 2012 meeting, the state Board of Private Detective and Security Agencies initially proposed ordering owner Thomas Shepperson to remove his armed guards from their posts until he had retrained all of them and to pay $500 for each violation, including failing to report the shootings. But in 2013, regulators voted to close the matter without issuing the order. The oversight board, composed heavily of industry executives, refused to release its investigation.
Today, owner Shepperson remains licensed. He did not return phone calls or emails and refused to answer the door to CIR reporters. His guards kept their licenses. Jackson could not be reached for comment.
After the shooting, Shepperson fired Scott, and Scott, an aspiring police officer, decided to leave the security profession. But recently, he decided to return; the board issued him a new registration this month.
“As the days go by, all I can do is, somewhere down the line, hope for justice,” Ervin Jefferson’s father, Ervin Jefferson Sr., said in an interview. “You wonder, why are they still walking around?”
His eyes flooded with tears. “If you get pulled over for driving without a license, you’re going to jail,” he said. “But you can carry a weapon and shoot someone to death, and it’s swept under the rug.”
Former CIR reporting intern Caroline Chen and former CIR reporter Ryan Gabrielson contributed to this story. CIR staff members Aaron Williams, Julia B. Chan, Jennifer LaFleur, Emmanuel Martinez and Rachael Bale and former CIR web producer La Toya Tooles helped with research. It was edited by Narda Zacchino and Robert Salladay and copy edited by Sheela Kamath and Nikki Frick.