A security officer (or security guard) is a person who is paid to protect property, assets, or people. They are usually privately and formally employed civilian personnel. Security officers are generally uniformed and act to protect property by maintaining a high visibility presence to deter illegal and inappropriate actions, observing (either directly, through patrols, or by watching alarm systems or video cameras) for signs of crime, fire or disorder; then taking action and reporting any incidents to their client and emergency services as appropriate.
Until the 1980s, the term watchman was more commonly applied to this function, a usage dating back to at least the Middle Ages in Europe. This term was carried over to North America where it was interchangeable with night-watchman until both terms were replaced with the modern security-based titles. Security guards are sometimes regarded as fulfilling a private policing function.
Functions and duties
Many security firms and proprietary security departments practice the “detect, deter, observe and report” methodology. Security officers are not required to make arrests, but have the authority to make a citizen’s arrest, or otherwise act as an agent of law enforcement, for example, at the request of a police officer or sheriff.
A private security officer’s primary duty is the prevention and deterrence of crime. Security personnel enforce company rules and can act to protect lives and property, and they often have a contractual obligation to provide these actions. In addition to basic deterrence, security officers are often trained to perform specialized tasks such as arrest and control (including handcuffing and restraints), operate emergency equipment, perform first aid, CPR, take accurate notes, write detailed reports, and perform other tasks as required by the client they are serving.
All security officers are also required to go through additional training mandated by the state for the carrying of weapons such as batons, firearms, and pepper spray (e.g. the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services in California has requirements that a license for each item listed must be carried while on duty). Some officers are required to complete police certification for special duties. Virginia training standards for security are identical to police training with regards to firearms (shotgun and handgun) but do not place licensing requirements for other items carried, only that training be provided that is documented. Several security companies have also become certified in RADAR and trained their sworn special police officers to use it on protected properties in conjunction with lights/sirens, allowing them to legally enforce traffic laws on private property.
The number of jobs is expected to grow in the U.S., with 175,000 new security jobs expected before 2016. In recent years, due to elevated threats of terrorism, most security officers are required to have bomb-threat training and/or emergency crisis training, especially those located in soft target areas such as shopping malls, schools, and any other area where the general public congregate.
One major economic justification for security personnel is that insurance companies (particularly fire insurance carriers) will give substantial rate discounts to sites which have a 24-hour presence. For a high risk or high value property, the discount can often exceed the money being spent on its security program. Discounts are offered because having security on site increases the odds that any fire will be noticed and reported to the local fire department before a total loss occurs. Also, the presence of security personnel (particularly in combination with effective security procedures) tends to diminish “shrinkage“, theft, employee misconduct and safety rule violations, property damage, or even sabotage. Many casinos hire security guards to protect money when transferring it from the casino to the casino’s bank.
Security personnel may also perform access control at building entrances and vehicle gates; meaning, they ensure that employees and visitors display proper passes or identification before entering the facility. Security officers are often called upon to respond to minor emergencies (lost persons, lockouts, dead vehicle batteries, etc.) and to assist in serious emergencies by guiding emergency responders to the scene of the incident, helping to redirect foot traffic to safe locations, and by documenting what happened on an incident report.
Armed security officers are frequently contracted to respond as law enforcement until a given situation at a client location is under control and/or public authorities arrive on the scene.
Patrolling is usually a large part of a security officer’s duties. Often these patrols are logged by use of a guard tour patrol system, which require regular patrols. Until recently the most commonly used form used to be mechanical clock systems that required a key for manual punching of a number to a strip of paper inside with the time pre-printed on it. But recently, electronic systems have risen in popularity due to their light weight, ease of use, and downloadable logging capabilities. Regular patrols are, however, becoming less accepted as an industry standard, as it provides predictability for the would-be criminal, as well as monotony for the security officer on duty. Random patrols are easily programmed into electronic systems, allowing greater freedom of movement and unpredictability. Global positioning systems are beginning to be used because they are a more effective means of tracking officers’ movements and behavior.
Although security officers differ greatly from police officers, military personnel, federal agents/officers, and the like, Australia and the United States have a growing proportion of security personnel that have former police or military experience, including senior management personnel. On the other hand, some security officers, young people in particular, use the job as practical experience to use in applying to law enforcement agencies.
Types of security personnel and companies
Security personnel are classified as either of the following:
- “In-house” or “proprietary” (i.e. employed by the same company or organization they protect, such as a mall, theme park, or casino); formerly often called works police or security police in the United Kingdom.
- “Security supervisor”, meets with clients and employees as necessary to ensure client and employee satisfaction.
- “Scheduler”, Security Officer assignment and strategic scheduling resulting in client satisfaction, employee retention and cost maintained within District financial plans.
- “Human Resources Manager”, effective delivery of human resources services such as employment, employee/labor relations, compensation, benefits administration, training and development, workers’ compensation, and audit compliance. Maintains and implements corporate policies and programs related to employment.
- “Client Service Manager”, promotes financial growth for the District by ensuring client retention, Security Officer retention, and support for the development of new business.
- “Client Service Supervisor”, provides security services for designated clients resulting in customer satisfaction, Security Officer retention, and financial growth for the District. Provides service in a large and complex area.
- “Contract“, working for a private security company which protects many locations.
- “Public Security”, a person employed or appointed as an (usually armed) security officer by a government or government agency.
- “Private Police Officers”, or “Special Police”.
- “Private Patrol Officers”, vehicle patrol officers that protect multiple client premises.
- “Parapolice“, aggressive firms that routinely engage in criminal investigation and arrest.
Industry terms for security personnel include: security guard, security officer, security agent, safety patrol, private police, company police, security enforcement officer, and public safety. Terms for specialized jobs include bouncer, bodyguards, executive protection agent, loss prevention, alarm responder, hospital security officer, mall security officer, crime prevention officer, patrolman, private patrol officer, and private patrol operator.
State and local governments sometimes regulate the use of these terms by law—for example, certain words and phrases that “give an impression that he or she is connected in any way with the federal government, a state government, or any political subdivision of a state government” are forbidden for use by California security licensees by Business and Professions Code Section 7582.26. So the terms “private homicide police” or “special agent” would be unlawful for a security licensee to use in California. Similarly, in Canada, various acts specifically prohibits private security personnel from using the termsProbation Officer, law enforcement, police, or police officer.
Alberta and Ontario prohibit the use of the term Security Officer, which has been in widespread use in the United States for many decades. Recent changes to the act have also introduced restrictions on uniform and vehicle colours and markings to make private security personnel clearly distinctive from police personnel. Some sources feel that some of these restrictions are put in place to satisfy the Canadian Police Association.
There is a marked difference between persons performing the duties historically associated with watchmen and persons who take a more active role in protecting persons and property. The former, often called “guards”, are taught the mantra “observe and report”, are minimally trained, and not expected to deal with the public or confront criminals.
The latter are often highly trained, sometimes armed depending on contracts agreed upon with clientele, and are more likely to interact with the general public and to confront the criminal element. These employees tend to take pride in the title “Security Officer” or “Protection Officer” and disdain the label of “guard”.
Security jobs vary in pay and duties. There is sometimes little relationship between duties performed and compensation, for example some mall “security officers” who are exposed to serious risks earn less per hour than “industrial security guards” who have less training and responsibility. However, there are now more positions in the security role that separate not just the titles, but the job itself. The roles have progressed and so have the areas for which security people are needed.
The term “agent” can be confusing in the security industry because it can describe a civil legal relationship between an employee and their employer or contractor (“agent of the owner” in California PC 602), and also can describe a person in government service (“Special Agent Jones of the Federal Bureau of Investigation“.) The title “agent” can be confused with bail enforcement agents, also known as “bounty hunters”, who are sometimes regulated by the same agencies which regulate private security. The term “agent” is also used in other industries, such as banking agents, loan agents and real estate agents.
Security agents are often employed in loss prevention and personal or executive protection (bodyguards) roles. They typically work in plainclothes (without a uniform), and are usually highly trained to act lawfully in direct defense of life or property.
Security personnel are essentially private citizens, and therefore are bound by the same laws and regulations as the citizenry they are contracted to serve, and therefore are not allowed to represent themselves as law enforcement under penalty of law.
Just as with the police profession, training requirements for the private security industry have evolved over time. For many years security guards were poorly chosen and poorly trained (if at all), partly because security guard companies who contracted with clients in private industry were paid very little for their security guard services. For the most part, contracts were awarded to security guard companies through a competition process and the final selection was often made based on cost rather than the experience or professionalism of the security guard company. That changed drastically on September 11, 2001 when radical Islamic terrorists attacked the United States. The event moved corporate threat concerns to the top of the priority list for most security guard contracts started being awarded based on professionalism. More money was invested in security so more money became available for training of security guards. The term ‘security professional’ began to surface and large private security companies like Blackwater, USA began offering training services for the private security industry that approached the level of training provided by the military. Security guard companies began paying enough to attract people with significant backgrounds in law enforcement and the military, often in special operations.
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Any person who conducts a business or is employed in a security-related field within Australia is required to be licensed. Each of the six states and two territories of Australia have separate legislation that covers all security activities. Licensing management in each state/territory is varied and is carried out by either Police, Attorney General’s Department, Justice Department or the Department of Consumer Affairs.
- New South Wales—(Police) Security Industry Act 1997 & Security Industry Regulation 2007
- Victoria—(Police) Private Security Act 2004
- Queensland—(Justice & Attorney-General) Security Providers Act 1993
- South Australia—(Consumer & Business Affairs) Security and Investigation Agents Act 1995
- Western Australia—(Police) Security & Related Activities (Control) Act 1996 & Security & Related Activities (Control) Regulations 1997
- Tasmania—(Police) *Security and Investigation Agents Act 2002
- Northern Territory—(Justice) Private Security Act & Private Security (Security Officer/Crowd Controller/Security Firms/Miscellaneous Matters) Regulations;
- Australian Capital Territory—(Regulatory Services) Security Industry Act 2003 & Security Industry Regulation 2003
All of this legislation was intended to enhance the integrity of the private security industry.
All persons licensed to perform security activities are required to undertake a course of professional development in associated streams that are recognised nationally. This has not always been the case and the introduction of this requirement is expected to regulate the educational standards and knowledge base so that the particular job can be competently performed.
Strict requirements are laid down as to the type of uniform and badge used by security companies. Uniforms or badges that may be confused with a police officer are prohibited. Also, the use of the titles ‘Security Police’ or ‘Private Detective’ are unacceptable. While the term security guard is used by companies, government bodies and individuals, the term security officer is deemed more suitable. Bouncers use the title Crowd Controllers, and Store Detectives use the title Loss Prevention or Asset Protection Officers.
Security Officers may carry firearms, handcuffs or batons where their role requires them to do so and then only when working and have the appropriate sub-class accreditation to their license.
Private Security personnel initially outnumbered police. From the Australian Bureau of Statistics Report in 2006 there were 52,768 full-time security officers in the security industry compared to 44,898 police officers. But since Security Industry Regulation Act 2007 it has dropped to less than half that.
The vigiles were soldiers assigned to guard the city of Rome, often credited as the origin of both security personnel and police, although their principal duty was as a fire brigade. There have been night watchmen since at least the Middle Ages in Europe; walled cities of ancient times also had watchmen. A special chair appeared in Europe sometime in the late Middle Ages, called the watchman’s chair; this unupholstered wooden chair had a forward slanting seat to prevent the watchman from dozing off during duty.
Notable security guards
- Samuel Provance, known for his testimony regarding the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, later became a Private Security Officer at a mall.
- The security guard Frank Wills detected the June 17, 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office complex in Washington, D.C., ultimately leading to the resignation of Richard M. Nixon as President of the United States.
- Christoph Meili, night guard at a Swiss bank, became a whistle blower in 1997. He told about the bank destroying records related to funds of Holocaustvictims, whose money the bank was supposed to return to their heirs.
- In 1999, Pierlucio Tinazzi rescued 10 victims from the Mont Blanc Tunnel Fire, before dying while trying to rescue an eleventh.
- In 2001, Gary Coleman, former child actor, was employed as a shopping mall security guard in the Los Angeles area. While shopping for a bullet-resistant vest for his job, Coleman assaulted a female autograph collector. Coleman said he felt “threatened by her insistence” and punched her in the head. He was later charged for the assault and ordered to pay her $1,665 for hospital bills.
- Derrick Brun, an unarmed security guard employed by the Red Lake School District in Minnesota, was praised by President Bush for his heroic role in protecting children during the 2005 Red Lake High School Massacre: “Derrick’s bravery cost him his life, and all Americans honor him”.
- Armed security guard Jeanne Assam. In 2007, Matthew Murray fatally shot two and wounded two others at the Youth With A Mission retreat center in Arvada, Colorado. A few hours later he fatally shot two others and wounded another three in the New Life Church parking lot. When Murray entered the church, he was met by armed security guard Jeanne Assam, who ordered him to drop his weapon. Assam shot and wounded Murray when he failed to comply. The pastor of New Life Church credited Assam with saving over 100 lives.
- Richard Jewell, a security guard at Atlanta, Georgia‘s Centennial Olympic Park during the 1996 Summer Olympics who was wrongly accused of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing. Jewell was later cleared of those charges, and was in fact the one who saved hundreds of lives when he first noticed the suspicious package and got the area evacuated. Jewell later successfully sued several news agencies who reported him as the criminal prior to having the facts.
Hazards in the Industry
Security personnel often are exposed to physical and physiological trauma that can have lasting effects. Security guards are at risk of being attacked by assailants. Other contributing factors are high workload, long hours, low pay, boredom and disregard of industry standards by employers and clients: e.g. break times, access to bathrooms and facilities, etc.
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