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How the Private Security Boom is Making Americans—and Guards—Less Safe

This story is two of three in Insecure, a series about the private security industry. Read Part 1: Private Security Guards Are Replacing Police Across America.

As protests against police violence spread across the U.S. in the summer of 2020, Tammy Barrett was terrified that her 22-year-old biracial son, Dallas, would become a victim. She was afraid that he’d get injured in riots, or shot by a police officer.

He made it safely through the protests. But one year later, in August 2021, police say Dallas was killed by private security guards on the rooftop deck of Dierks Bentley’s Whiskey Row in Nashville. A blurry video released by a local news station shows men in black SECURITY shirts kneeling on Dallas’s back while he coughs and tries to tell anyone listening that he can’t breathe. The medical examiner later ruled that the death was a homicide and that Dallas died from asphyxiation.

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“It was unfathomable to me that he could be killed by security guards,” says Barrett, a cab dispatcher who has pushed for security guard licensing reforms in the wake of her son’s death. “But as this story came out, I had all sorts of people messaging me saying something similar happened to their cousin, or their husband, or their wife.”

Private security guards have proliferated in recent years—indeed, when he died, Dallas was just a few weeks away from starting his own job as a security guard. Demand for guards had been rising for decades, but really took off in 2020 as businesses hired extra people to enforce mask mandates, patrol buildings left empty by remote workers, and fill in for dropping numbers of police officers. The trend has only accelerated as communities turn to private security due to concerns about gun violence and crime rates—and a growing lack of confidence that police departments can respond to calls quickly enough.

Read more: Private Security Guards Are Replacing Police Across America

Once you start looking, as Barrett did after her son’s death, you will see private security guards everywhere; at the mall, at the grocery store, at schools, at the airport, on public transit. But the industry’s rapid growth has occurred without necessary safeguards; government entities can do little to make certain that security guards are qualified for their jobs or that they even know what levels of force are allowed by law, and companies struggle with quality control as they grow.

Twenty-one states don’t require any amount of training for unarmed security officers; according to the National Association of Security Companies. Even in states with requirements, enforcement is difficult because there are so many guards spread out across so many locations and states lack staffing to enforce the rules. Tennessee, for instance, found that four of the six security guards arrested after the death of Dallas Barrett did not have proper registration cards to work as security guards.

Private security guards follow behind protesters marching to a Planned Parenthood office, which was targeted by Proud Boys and an anti-abortion group the previous week, to denounce the US Supreme Court decision to end abortion rights protections in Santa Monica, Calif. on July 16, 2022.
David McNew—Getty ImagesPrivate security guards follow behind protesters marching to a Planned Parenthood office to denounce the US Supreme Court decision to end abortion rights protections in Santa Monica, Calif. on July 16, 2022.

Growing demand makes vetting and training difficult

Private security has been a presence in America for centuries; Pinkerton, a private security company founded by immigrant Allan Pinkerton around 1850, is well-known for its claims to have foiled an 1861 plot to murder president-elect Abraham Lincoln. But the industry has changed dramatically since then. Today, it is dominated by massive conglomerates like Allied Universal and GardaWorld; Pinkerton is now a subsidiary of Securitas AB, which has 358,000 employees in 45 markets. Allied Universal, the world’s largest security company, became America’s third-largest employer in 2021, behind only Amazon and Walmart, when it acquired G4S, another security company.

The security industry is so consolidated because it’s a very low-margin business, says Michael Field, an analyst with Morningstar. Clients aren’t willing to pay high wages for someone who is mostly there to deter crime and who doesn’t actually produce revenue for their business. “If you want to make money from it, you just have to keep taking over security businesses and hoping you can save on back office costs,” Field says.

With such low margins, many companies have to keep costs down. They do that by paying service industry wages, and by staffing even high-crime areas with only one guard, says Rick McCann, the founder of Private Officer International, an association for security officers that tracks trends in the industry. While law enforcement officers make an average of $70,000 a year nationally, security guards make around half of that.

“The way the security industry operates is what I called the McDonald’s model—they don’t sell quality, they sell quantity,” McCann says. The big companies that dominate the market often approach recruiting in much the same way as other giant national employers, he says—by hiring lots of people at once and assuming turnover will be high. (Steve Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies, says that because hiring someone with a checkered past could open a security company to a lawsuit, most try to vet applicants “to the extent that they can.” But that’s not always adequate.) There are companies who do hire skilled guards like former law enforcement officers and former military, and who spend time and money on training, McCann says, but they struggle to compete against the companies who win contracts by offering very low rates.

The rapid rate of hiring is proving dangerous. In the last few months alone, a private security guard at a Miami Metrorail station allegedly shot and killed a rider in what was reported to be a dispute, a private security guard at a New York City Walgreens punched an alleged shoplifter and then was arrested for assault, and police say that a security guard shot a patron of a Baltimore pizza shop after an altercation.

Many recent public tragedies have links to the failures in the private security industry. In Miami, just before the Surfside condominium collapsed in 2021, a security guard failed to push a button that would have alerted building residents to danger because she had never been told of its existence. The fatal crowd crush during the 2021 Astroworld Festival was caused in part because the security guards hired to work the event were not properly trained or supervised, according to a lawsuit filed by two guards. In 2020, as protests roiled the country, an unlicensed security guard in Denver killed a protester by shooting him in the face; the Denver District Attorney declined to press charges because prosecutors could not disprove the claim that he acted in self-defense.

In the past decade, 309 security officers have been arrested for manslaughter or murder while on duty, according to McCann.

Guards are underprepared for danger

The unregulated boom in security isn’t just dangerous for the general public—it’s dangerous for the guards who are risking their personal safety just to show up at work. While a few years ago, a security guard stationed at a retail store might just be there to deter minor shoplifting, today, those security guards have to deal with organized retail crime. Workers may be told that their job is to just act as a deterrent and are then put in a situation where customers are looking to them for protection. A few guards I interviewed for this story say that they carry mace or a knife, even though their employer prohibits it, for their own safety. McCann estimates that there are 13,000 assaults on security officers annually.

“I’ve had gun lasers and guns pointed at me, I’ve had a boulder thrown through my rear window, I’ve had a guy admit to pistol whipping his wife when I respond to a noise complaint,” says Brandon Muse, who was a security guard for Allied Universal in Sacramento for three years. “All for $16 an hour.” Muse says conditions worsened with every year he was a security guard as he received more assignments removing transient people from private properties.

Allied said, in a statement provided to TIME, that it investigates the causes of all incidents and “takes appropriate action to limit the possibility of similar solutions reoccurring.”

Fatalities are not unusual: McCann estimates that 145 security officers die on duty each year, 85% of whom are murdered. They included Marco Carral Duran, a security guard in San Jose who was killed when he tried to intervene in a domestic violence dispute; an estranged husband shot his wife, Duran, and then himself in front of his six children in 2022.

The security guards who are most in danger are those who work alone and who have no communication devices other than their personal cell phones—those, in other words, who are not getting a lot of support from their employer.

After a security guard was killed in an Idaho mall shooting in 2021, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found that the Los Angeles company providing security services for the mall had failed to protect its security workers from hazards likely to cause death or serious harm.

“Clients still don’t recognize the changes in overall duties and responsibilities, dangers, and risks,” says McCann. “They set the limits of what they’ll pay the security company, and security companies have no choice but to hire from the same labor pool as retail, fast food, general labor, and retirees.”

Armed private security guards gather on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, on Nov. 1, 2020.
Patrick T. Fallon—Bloomberg/Getty ImagesArmed private security guards gather on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, California, on Nov. 1, 2020.

Some states push for stricter regulations

Incidents like the death of Dallas Barrett have spurred reforms in some cities and states. After a man died in Sacramento in 2019 after three security officers allegedly kneeled on his neck, California passed a law that mandates use of force training for private security and that requires private security to report to the state any incident involving physical altercation or use of force. The state already requires that security guards receive eight hours of training and pass a background check before they’re issued a “guard card,” which allows them to work in California; they must complete 32 additional hours after they’ve started their jobs.

After Tammy Barrett pushed local officials to act, Tennessee passed Dallas’s Law, which went into effect in 2023 and which requires that all security guards who work in establishments that serve alcohol be trained in de-escalation, safe restraint, first aid, and CPR. Establishments that employ unlicensed guards risk losing their licenses.

Denver completed an overhaul of regulations in 2018 and now has one of the most strictly regulated security guard licensing systems in America, says Molly Duplechain, executive director of the Denver Excise and Licenses Dept. Employers who want to hire security guards must have a license, and guards themselves also must be licensed. There are now around 7,000 active security guard licenses in the city, 16% more than in 2020, but there hasn’t been an increase in violence from guards, Duplechain says. “The proof is in the pudding,” she says. “These training requirements are working.”

Still, it’s difficult to enforce the licensing and training standards, even in places that have them. Though California has some of the most stringent licensing laws in the country, the number of complaints about security guards has been trending upwards in the state; there were 2,822 consumer complaints to the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services in 2021, the most recent year for which there is data available—almost double the number in 2016. The state assessed nearly $300,000 in fines in 2021, ten times what it assessed in 2016.

This indicates that cities and states can pass all the regulations they want but security won’t become safer unless companies follow those rules. As demand continues to boom, hiring standards are getting more lax, says McCann, who trains officers as part of his job. At a recent training in Virginia, he says, he flagged to the company that one of their job candidates appeared to have severe mental health problems. “I said I wasn’t going to be able to qualify this guy, but they just shrugged,” he said, of the security company.

Some of the biggest security companies in California could hire 1,000 people a day and still not have enough workers, says David Chandler, the president of the California Assn. of Licensed Security Guard Agencies, Guards & Associates (CALSAGA). One California company was offering $19/hour starting pay for security guards, only to see that a local fast food chain was offering $22/hour. “It’s hard to get people in the door,” Chandler says.

For security companies, following the licensing rules can mean losing out on contracts. If someone is applying for a fast food job and a security job, but the background checks and training for the security job mean they can’t start for a month, the applicant will take the fast food job because they need to earn a paycheck. Security companies are already frustrated with the amount of time it takes to get workers licensed, says Amitay, of NASCO. One of his biggest jobs right now, he says, is to travel to states and try to figure out ways to decrease the delays in the licensing of private security officers.

And there will always be the companies that ignore the licensing requirements, something that Barrett is learning. Tennessee passed regulations she had supported, but in April, police padlocked a Nashville bar that had long been cited as a public nuisance; police say that at least four of the security guards working there did not have the required licenses to work as armed security guards. One of the armed guards was a convicted felon, police say, meaning he never should have been hired as a guard, much less been allowed to carry a gun.