by Mike Zielinski


Propelled by public panic over crime, the private security industry is one of the fastest growing enterprises in the U.S., spending more money and employing more guards than public police forces around the country. In 1990 alone, $52 billion was spent on private security, compared to $30 billion on police. More than 10,000 private security companies employ some 1.5 million guards, nearly triple the 554,000 state and local police officers.

And the industry which generates billions in profits is growing rapidly. One congressional advocate of increased regulation says national labor statistics indicate that more jobs will be created in the private security field than any other categories over the next decade. Industry executives estimate that the number of private guards will surge to 2 million by the year 2000.

Amidst heightened public fears in the wake of the Oklahoma bombing, fresh threats by the UNABOMBER, and recurring references by the press and politicians to the menace of foreign terrorists, the industry is poised for boom times. With the 1996 presidential election looming large, both major political parties are sure to issue more strident calls for stepped-up policing, both public and private.


The era of dual law enforcement is already here, with a vengeance. Private guards are popping up everywhere, patrolling shopping malls, workplaces, apartment buildings and neighborhoods. The phenomenal growth of massive private shopping malls, and the steady shrinkage of public shopping streets, means the public is more likely to encounter private security than public police on a daily basis. The business community already pays for security in malls, stores, offices, banks, and highly congested public places such as New York City's Grand Central Station. And as federal funding recedes, many municipalities are looking to cut costs further by hiring rent-a-cops to work ambulance services and parking enforcement, as well as to watch over crime scenes and transport prisoners who increasingly face incarceration in corporate-run prisons. California, always the harbinger of disturbing new trends in American culture, goes beyond putting private guards on the street. Wealthy residents of Los Angeles hire their guards complete with squad cars. The City Council has 50 applications pending to barricade public streets to facilitate the work of these private security cruisers.

Privatization extends to the federal government, which is increasingly handing over security functions to corporations which employ and underpay a non-unionized workforce. In 1971, there were 5,000 federal police providing security at government buildings. Today there are 409, with private contract guards making up the difference. Government-busters in Congress support these privatization moves, overriding objections from the American Federation of Government Employees. The union is pushing for federal workers to have a say in all decisions that affect the workplace, particularly when it comes to a question as vital as providing physical security.

As rent-a-cops supplant functions once performed by police, the private security industry is creating a separate and unequal system under which the rich protect their privileges and guard their wealth from perceived barbarians at the gate. Many of the affluent now live in enclaves, gated communities, where private security forces control entrances, screen visitors and hired help, and patrol the grounds. These heavily-armed private guards are accountable not to the public, but to the well-manicured hand that feeds them. Meanwhile, it is left to public police forces to maintain a coercive order within deteriorating inner cities.


This private security business bonanza is fueled by demagogic politicians and reinforced with violent imagery and fear-mongering rhetoric from talk radio, the tabloid press, and sensationalist television shows such as Hard Copy. It is taking place even as government surveys indicate that crime levels have been more or less constant over the past 20 years. In fact, the FBI reported at the end of 1994 that overall crime for the year decreased to 1986 levels, while violent crime declined to the level of 1990. The facts, however, do not make a dent in the public's perception that crime is out of control.

As a result of the rhetoric and fear as well as rational concerns about crime the private security industry is profitably positioned at the intersection of two of the right-wing's most cherished crusades: privatization and law and order. The industry enjoys a symbiotic relationship with the gun lobby as organizations such as the NRA help incite public fear of crime, then hold out assault weapons as the best solution to security concerns. In turn, the expanded presence of private guards in daily life reinforces the notion that a gun is an essential piece in any urban survival kit.

This rush to employ private guards reflects the militarization of America. Private firms are arming guards at a pace to match the rapid expansion of non-sporting firearms in private hands. America is an armed camp, with an estimated 200 million guns in private hands. The more than 100,000 gun-toting private guards have more firepower than the combined police forces of the nation's 30 largest urban centers.


All this firepower, trained on a public which places its trust in uniformed guards, raises a variety of concerns: The private security industry is largely unregulated; its employees are often poorly trained, underpaid, and inadequately screened; and they serve only those who hired them. While rent-a cops are legally limited to observing, reporting and attempting to deter crime a power which falls short of the authorized use of force or the right to make an arrest the distinction is apt to be lost on most citizens accosted by a uniformed private guard waving a gun and security badge.

The history of businesses hiring security firms and using them like a private army is long and rife with abuse. Pinkerton, the nation's oldest and second largest security company, earned its spurs in the late 19th century when its guards served as a private army for robber barons intent on wiping out unions. Pinkerton provided the firepower when Ford Frick issued the order to gun down striking workers at Andrew Carnegie's Homestead steel plant in 1892.

Private security companies today have kept that union-busting tradition alive and well. As corporations faced with labor disputes turn more and more to so-called permanent replacement workers, guard firms are utilized to crush militant opposition from unions. A rapidly expanding subset of the industry specializes in strikebreaking.

At the forefront is the Special Response Corporation (SRC), based in Towson, Maryland, SRC's ads feature a uniformed agent wielding a riot shield beneath a headline which proclaims: A Private Army When You Need It Most. SRC promises prospective employers that we can provide the security and control measures necessary for the continued operation of the business in the event of a strike. SRC vouches for the professionalism of its agents, stating that they all have prior military or law enforcement experience. In 1990, SRC helped precipitate a melee when its guards used martial arts sticks against striking newspaper workers in New York City.

The company claims to have seen action in a thousand labor disputes during the last decade and to receive up to 500 inquiries a year about its services. One grateful SRC client thanked the company for providing surveillance relating to Workmen's Compensation claims and other general undercover surveillance work during a strike.

SRC does not limit itself to labor strife. The company dispatched guards to South Central Los Angeles following the unrest that erupted when police officers were acquitted in the brutal beating of Rodney King. SRC agents helped provide security for private businesses.

One of the most active strike-breaking firms is Vance Security, founded by Charles Vance, ex-son-in-law of ex-President Gerald Ford. Vance's agents were deployed against striking Greyhound drivers in the late 1980s and served as shock troops for the Pittston Coal Group, Inc. in its protracted and bitter battle with the United Mine Workers.

Vance runs a rent-a-mercenary operation which recruits through ads in Soldier of Fortune and offers its agents training in the use of firearms, Mace, and riot batons. An ad in the 1986 Gung-Ho Yearbook, a paramilitary magazine, was aimed at those of you who have military backgrounds who are interested in $100-a-day, all-expenses-paid work. The company offered a refresher course in the use of firearms should things get completely out of hand.

The Asset Protection Team, a Vance subsidiary, runs an ad which features a jack-booted security agent equipped with a riot shield, club and helmet. A brochure guarantees guards will arrive with all the personal equipment necessary to handle all levels of violence.

These firms' stock in trade is the creation of a threatening atmosphere for union supporters. During a dispute between Caterpillar, Inc. and the United Auto Workers in 1992, Vance Security transformed the company's plant into a war zone, placing barbed wire around the grounds. Striking steel workers at an Alcoa plant in Tennessee were subjected to constant surveillance with video cameras, while gun-toting agents were stationed on the tops of buildings and ground-level security brandished riot shields and tear gas canisters. Vance guards followed union members after they left picket lines.

Union organizers view these tactics as a form of psychological warfare. According to John Duray of the United Mine Workers, private guards act as provocateurs, attempting to incite a violent response from strikers. Duray says that security firms create a violent situation, then record it, and take the film to court. Employers then seek a legal injunction against the union.

The most current case of union-busting security guards is unfolding in Detroit this summer. Members of the Newspaper Guild and the Teamsters are on strike at the city's two daily newspapers, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press, owned by Knight-Ridder and media giant Gannett, respectively. In mid-July, agents from Vance Security attacked four strikers, sending three of them to a hospital emergency room. Local police confiscated four armloads of wooden clubs from security guards employed by the newspapers.

When it comes to repression, one of the most versatile guard companies is Wackenhut, founded by a retired FBI agent. The security corporation operates 12 prisons, with plans for expansions, and runs a detention center in Queens, New York, under contract from the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS). Detainees, who have not been charged with a crime but are awaiting an INS hearing on asylum claims, are confined in cinder block cells and denied access to outside grounds.

Wackenhut has received a number of security contracts from local governments, including assignments to patrol downtown Miami's shopping district, rest stops at Florida highways, and commuter trains in Denver. Wackenhut assisted in the installation of video cameras trained on Denver light rail riders and petitioned the city for permission to take over ticket-writing functions from local police.

All of this activity adds up to mega-profits for Wackenhut. In 1994, its annual operating income zoomed from 47 cents per share to 85 cents.

Armed Private security guard
outside Chicago Housing Authority.


In addition to their role as mercenaries in the class war, some guards have committed misdeeds beyond those commissioned by their employers. Asked why he robbed banks, legendary stickup man Willie Sutton reportedly replied because that's where the money is. In that spirit, some aspiring thieves seek out jobs as security guards in order to gain access to ATM machines, bank vaults, and victims. According to William Brill, who has helped train and evaluate security guards for more than 20 years, in many of my interviews with convicted murderers and rapists, I have found that many worked for security guard companies at one point or another. One reason for this was that the job was easy to get; another was that it put them in touch with potential targets.

The security industry appears to be a magnet for the socially dispossessed. Security jobs are readily available and do not require specialized skills or extensive education. At the same time, a guard's uniform and gun offer a sense of power and authority lacking in most service sector jobs. Experts who monitor the industry point to a fascination with guns and police work as common characteristics found among security guards. Some individuals turned to private security firms after failing to pass tests to become police officers. Timothy McVeigh, the accused Oklahoma City bomber, signed on as a security guard after flunking the Green Berets' psychological tests.

Although no agency records crime statistics for offenses committed by security guards, anecdotal evidence is voluminous. Private security guards in action offer a mix of the macabre and the Keystone Cops:

Hoping to receive a commendation for reporting it, Michael Huston, a guard for Burns International Security Services, set fire to a trash can full of papers at Hollywood's Universal Studios in early 1992. The fire flared out of control, causing more than $25 million in damage to Universal's sets.

A former Wells Fargo guard stood trial in May for the 1984 murder of a 20-year-old student at Drexel University, the campus he was hired to protect. Police charged that the guard strangled the young woman for her sneakers so he could satisfy a shoe fetish. At the trial, another ex-guard described her fellow co-workers as alcoholics and drug addicts.

In New Jersey, a grand jury found that guards employed by Burns assaulted or otherwise abused spectators at the Meadowlands sports arena on more than 20 occasions between 1987 and 1990. This same company provides security at nearly one in three of the country's nuclear power plants.

A Wells Fargo guard made the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List for allegedly stealing $7 million from a bank vault.

A Philadelphia ATM machine was robbed of $40,000 after the thief told Wells Fargo guards to ignore any alarms because he was there to fix the machine.

In March, a Globe Security guard choked ex-Virginia Governor Douglas Wilder at the Raleigh-Durham airport, following an exchange of harsh words when Wilder set off a metal detector.

In 1994, Wells Fargo Armored Service Corporation turned in 23 employees for theft, while another 25 were dismissed for reasons related to theft or negligence. The company president, Hugh Sawyer, informed Congress that our industry is subject to an unusually high rate of internal theft because our personnel are constantly exposed to our cash in transit and in our vaults. Sawyer acknowledged that low hourly pay rates only increased the temptation faced by his employees.

Peter Everett, an attorney representing clients who have suffered abuses because of negligent guards, contends that intense competition within the industry leads firms to make ever deeper cuts in their only real expense: labor. According to Everett, Economic incentives now exist to hire inexperienced, minimum wage guards without conducting the most basic background checks or providing essential training. After all, the faster you can put someone on a beat that you are paying $5 an hour to and charge $10 for their services, the faster you will pocket the revenues. And when coupled with scarce benefits the higher the worker turnover.

William Brill put the question to Congress: Is it going to be an industry that includes companies that field poorly paid and poorly supervised guards, that includes companies that have 500 percent turnover in a year, that hire a guard one day and put him on duty the next; that offer no training, no future for their employees an industry that has been a career stop for any number of criminals, including mass murderers like James Huberty, who gunned down 21 people at a McDonalds in California?

With a seemingly limitless pool not only of guards, but also of potential business clients, many companies simply shrug off business lost to negligent or corrupt services, and move on to the next assignment. A steady demand for security, combined with low overhead costs, has made the guard business an attractive investment for entrepreneurs both big and small. Firms move in and out of the field so fast that even the most knowledgeable experts can only guess that the number of companies ranges between 10,000 and 15,000.


And while vast numbers of private guards may lull some of the public into believing that protection is in place, a look at the industry's record reveals what a false sense of security this is. In fact, the industry operates in a marketplace virtually free of regulation. A mere 17 states have established standards for training unarmed guards and 18 states do not even require training for guards equipped with weapons. In 1993, Rep. Matthew Martinez (D-Calif.) introduced legislation setting a threshold for guard training, mandating 16 hours of schooling before deployment. The bill received support from some of the security industry's major players, including top executives from Wackenhut and Wells Fargo Armored Service.

Advocates of even stricter controls contend that these security giants endorsed limited regulation as a means of erecting barriers to the competition. The training standards were set low enough so that the largest companies could easily meet the requirements, but sufficiently high as to be cost-prohibitive for locally-based mom and pop companies. In pressing for expanded background checks, security firms may also be motivated as much by their own financial liability as concern for public safety. Companies regularly pay out millions to settle lawsuits and obtain insurance against the negligence or misconduct of their guards. For example, Wells Fargo was forced to ante up $3.7 million in 1992 to reimburse customers who were robbed in thefts linked to its guards.

Among the most outspoken critics to emerge from within the industry is Ira Lipman, president of Guardsmark, the country's fifth largest security firm. He draws a dismal picture of the industry, asserting that there are security officers in this nation who are convicted murderers and rapists, who are thrilled at the sight of fire, who think that a uniform gives them authority, and that a gun gives them power, who cannot control their urges or contain their wants, who prey on those they are hired to protect. The industry's greatest weakness, he contends is the lack of rigorous background checks. [Security firms] do not even attempt to check applicants' criminal records, military service records, personal references, previous employers or educational claims. They don't test for literacy, they don't test for drug use, and they don't evaluate psychological fitness.

Lipman's criticism fails to address several important issues. First, while stricter standards may weed out violence prone individuals, they may do violence to the Constitution. Potential screening measures rouse civil liberties concerns about the collaboration of private firms and government law enforcement agencies. While private guard companies can now search in-state arrest records, corporate leaders, joined by a growing number of congressmembers, are demanding increased access to FBI data banks. At least two bills facilitating such access may be introduced in this session of Congress, while one Republican lawmaker has already attached a similar amendment to anti-terrorist legislation rushed through Congress in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing. Leading security companies, and their allies in Congress, are also pressing for direct access to the FBI's National Crime Information Center listing criminal convictions throughout the country. The American Bankers Association already has access to this data bank.

Given the FBI's own history of illegal spying and civil liberties abuses, the prospect of the bureau sharing its data with security corporations is a dangerous development. Increased training, responsible monitoring and higher wages for guards would help ensure a greater level of accountability without threatening civil liberties.


The expanding use of the security industry is yet another sign that social conditions in the U.S. increasingly mirror those in the Third World. As in Guatemala and El Salvador, where the rich employ paramilitaries to defend their privileges and security, in the U.S. too, justice is often measured by the size of your bank account. The same is ever more true for access to the most basic public services. Inadequate funding and official neglect are plunging public housing, education, and transportation to levels approaching those in the Third World. Meanwhile, affluent communities continue to turn to the private sector where the most basic social services from trash collection to the supply of drinking water, from education to mail delivery are auctioned off to the highest bidder in a real-life variant of the board game Monopoly.

Increased privatization is further widening the gap between the haves and the have-nots. Since 1979, the real income of the richest 20 percent of the U.S. has grown by nearly 20 percent, while the 60 percent at the bottom have seen their share of the wealth decline. This difference will be further exacerbated by new tax breaks promoted by a Republican Congress. Fifty percent of the benefits would accrue to those with more than $200,000 in annual income, while another 30 percent would go to those making more than $100,000.

Privileges such as these must be jealously guarded by force if necessary. In a society marked by growing inequality, security both private and public is likely to be stepped-up to enforce social order and keep the poorest sectors of the population under control.


The private security industry's rapid growth challenges those seeking progressive solutions to problems of crime and violence. Calling for more authority for public police is not an appealing remedy in communities where police-inflicted beatings like that rained on Rodney King are the rule rather than the exception. Community organizations are emerging that recognize the dangers of placing too much trust in either public or private police, while acknowledging the need for action to combat crime, which strikes disproportionately at low-income neighborhoods. The Oakland-based Center for Third World Organizing has helped to bring some sponsors of locally focused initiatives together to share strategies and resources.

The nationwide Campaign for Community Safety and Police Accountability (CCSPA) addresses the need to make security forces accountable to the public while implementing programs designed to reduce crime by meeting social needs. The organization calls for programs geared toward ending police brutality, giving communities greater control over anti-crime resources, and generating alternatives to imprisonment. Such efforts pose a progressive alternative to vigilante-style neighborhood watch groups and the increased deployment of armed guards from the public and private sector.

These community efforts offer the best hope for halting the rapid march toward the militarization of America. Community initiatives to rein in police forces need to focus on the abusive potential of the private security industry as well. In a democracy, public police forces, with all their abuses, have at least a theoretical potential for accountability through citizen review boards and other community pressures. Private security firms, however, are inherently a law unto themselves, only accountable to the corporate bottom line.

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