Guns for Hire : A Growing Crops of Private Cops Is the First Line of Defense for Our Homes and Shops--but at a Price

Staff writer Miles Corwin covers crime for The Times. This is his first article for the magazine

A bunch of gangbangers are hanging out in front of a ramshackle Pacoima housing complex, swigging 40-ounce bottles of malt liquor and yelling gang slogans at passing cars. Inside their apartments, the residents fear that the action out on the street will turn to violence, maybe a drive-by shooting. They know that if they call the police, it might take hours before a squad car arrives.

But now they have another option. The owners of the sprawling 400-unit stucco complex, frustrated by drug dealing in the apartments, car thefts in the parking lot and the three warring gangs in the neighborhood, have hired a private security firm to patrol the grounds. So on this Saturday night, a worried renter complains to a guard, who hustles off to his command post to alert his partners.

A few minutes later, four armed security guards suddenly appear out of the darkness, converging on the gangbangers in a pincer movement. One guard drives his car onto the sidewalk and targets them with a spotlight; three other guards approach on foot. Most of the gangbangers scatter, but a shirtless straggler holds his ground and glares. He is high on PCP and his chest and arms are covered with gang tattoos. "Who are you here to visit?" a guard demands.

"Happy Halloween," he responds. He stumbles toward the guard and takes a swing, but the other security men swarm him, wringing his arms behind his back. They handcuff him, haul him to the command post and jam him into a chair. It's a citizen's arrest, the accusation is attempted battery and about an hour later police come by and take him away. The other gangbangers do not return to the complex that night.

In the past, the incident would have been a police matter. But the cops are now so understaffed and overwhelmed that on hectic weekend nights they respond immediately only to "hot shot" calls of crimes in progress or life-threatening situations. Frightened homeowners, renters and merchants are not waiting for Mayor Richard Riordan to make good on his campaign pledge of increasing the Los Angeles Police Department from 7,600 officers to more than 10,000. Like the owners of the Pacoima complex, they are hiring their own protectors.

The for-hire, private security industry is booming, providing some immediate relief, but the trend also raises troubling questions, primarily about the birth of a two-class police system. Many security experts foresee the day when police will provide just minimal public safety; any security beyond that will be a free-market commodity like health care and education. Residents and merchants with the money to spend will hire private security, while the poor will rely on an overburdened police department--just as they are now relying on a deteriorating school system and crowded public hospitals.

"We're turning into a society where not everyone in the city has equal protection," says Mark Baldassare, a professor of urban planning at UC Irvine. "So in the poorer neighborhoods, residents feel more vulnerable, more abandoned by the system. And the only people who really feel safe are those who can pay for protection. You see this same type of thing in Third World cities . . . and it looks like it's evolving that way in L.A."

Nevertheless, private security already has spread to low-income neighborhoods, with landlords throughout the inner city hiring guards to protect their apartments and ensure higher occupancy rates. Even among renters here, there is a class system: those who can pay enough to live in apartments served by security firms and those who cannot.

There now are more than 700 security firms in Los Angeles County, an increase of about 100 during the past four years alone, with more than 50,000 guards on foot and car patrol, according to statistics compiled by the state. These guards, who are working neighborhoods from South-Central to Bel-Air, are providing L.A.'s real community-based policing. While LAPD black-and-whites lurch from crisis to crisis, the security guards have time to chat with residents about neighborhood problems and provide extra patrols for worried merchants. All for a price.

And the traditional state guidelines of the security guard--"to observe and report"--have been supplanted by a more forceful, aggressive stance. In many cases, they now confront suspects; they pursue suspects; they shoot at suspects when shot at.

"In a hard-core high-crime neighborhood you can't send in the old unarmed night watchman types," says J.D. Deary, services manager for Enterprise Patrol, the firm that provides security officers for the Pacoima apartments. "They'd get eaten alive. We send in teams of very aggressive armed guards who will butt heads until a place is cleaned up."

The numbers on private security are up across the country. The national total--about 600,000--has almost doubled in the last decade, according to a National Institute of Justice study. Official law enforcement agencies post almost the same total, but they are beset by a dark future of budget cutbacks while private security is one of the fastest growing fields in the country. "Private security forces have evolved to the point that they now routinely perform some of the tasks traditionally performed by law enforcement such as guard, patrol and investigative services," the study noted. And in an increasing number of American cities, they work hand in hand with police.

The bottom line is the key reason for this growth in private security. Hiring security guards is simply much less expensive than adding law enforcement personnel. One police officer costs a community about $50,000 a year in salary and benefits. Armed security guards in Southern California make less than half that, between $8 and $12 an hour. Unarmed guards average between $5 and $7. And most security companies offer no pension, no medical benefits and require guards to buy their own weapons and uniforms.

But relying almost exclusively on private guards can have dangerous consequences. Many are not properly trained, security experts say, and some firms do not screen applicants sufficiently to weed out those with criminal tendencies or histories. Still, in Los Angeles, which has only 2.3 officers for every 1,000 residents--the fewest police per capita of the nation's 10 largest cities--many merchants and residents feel they have no alternative. They are frustrated by interminable police response times and frightened after the riots. So they try to distinguish between the reputable companies who thoroughly screen their guard applicants and the fast-buck artists, and then hope for the best.

"In times of real trouble, like during the riots, we learned we could not count on the police," says In-Ha Cho, an acupuncturist who formed a security service early this year after he was shot during the riots. Cho's operation employs nine guards and patrols Koreatown. "Merchants who have lost everything have no faith in the police anymore."

The city is "failing in its responsibility" to provide a safe environment for residents, says James Q. Wilson, professor of management and public policy at UCLA. "I don't think it's inherently unfair for people with money to buy additional security for themselves if the city is providing a minimum level for everyone. The problem is, the city isn't providing that."

Many police officials contend that security guards are not the answer to Los Angeles' violent crime problems. From 1985 to 1992, homicides in L.A. have increased from about 780 to 1,100 a year, aggravated assaults have more than doubled to about 45,000 a year and robberies have increased from 30,000 to about 40,000 a year, according to FBI statistics. Security guards are, at best, a "Band-Aid approach," says LAPD Capt. John L. Higgins, who heads the Hollywood division. Higgins, for instance, wanted to put more officers on Hollywood Boulevard, but the city would not provide the funding.

Instead, even government officials are turning to private security. The Los Angeles Community Redevelopment Agency hired guards from Patriot Security to patrol a 1.5-mile stretch of Hollywood Boulevard, responding to calls from merchants and rousting the drug dealers, panhandlers and hookers who had been driving tourists away. The redevelopment agency, funded by tax money set aside for redevelopment areas, provided $750,000 for the one-year program, which started in June. It was the first time a city agency in Los Angeles had hired a private guard firm to patrol a neighborhood.

Many boulevard merchants say they appreciate the highly visible guards and insist that the program has been successful. But police contend that private security guards cannot do much beyond shooing away hookers and panhandlers. "Having uniformed guards on the street helps with the minor offenses," Higgins says. "But in reality a guard has no more authority than a private citizen. This is really more of a superficial approach. Guards don't have the training or authority to handle the serious, violent crime that people are so concerned about."

SECURITY GUARD STEVE LADRIDO WALKS WAITRESSES TO THEIR CARS late at night, persuades residents to turn down their stereos and subdues contentious pool players. Oceanside residents still call police for the most serious crimes, but Ladrido and other guards of Bel-Air Patrol handle many of the other problems in their city.

On a recent Saturday night, during Ladrido's shift, an elderly woman called Bel-Air because a man was harassing residents in front of her apartment complex. A motel owner called because junkies were trying to crash into one of his rooms. A liquor store owner called and complained about a drunk, hostile panhandler in his parking lot.

Ladrido, 35, who wears a bulletproof vest and carries a 9mm semiautomatic pistol, nightstick and handcuffs, cruises his beat listening to a police radio scanner. He takes calls on his cellular phone and responds within five minutes. Every call he takes, every problem he clears up, he says, is one less call police have to worry about.

When there is a lull, he cruises the downtown area, running off gang members who gather in front of businesses or monitoring drunk servicemen from nearby military bases. He occasionally pulls up next to a police patrol car and they share information about wanted gang members or drug dealers.

The Oceanside community redevelopment agency, concerned because the downtown area was plagued by drug dealers and prostitutes, hired Bel-Air Patrol on a three-month trial program last year. The program was so successful that when the agency's $9,000 grant ran out, downtown residents and businesses chipped in to keep the security guards on the job. Homeowners pay $10 a month, business owners $50 and apartment owners pay $5 per unit.

Ladrido and the 16 other guards who staff the 24-hour patrol respond to about 30 calls a day and more than 100 on busy weekends. They have made about 60 arrests, but usually call in the police on the more serious offenses. (Guards, like any resident, can make a citizen's arrest if they see someone commit a misdemeanor or have "reasonable" suspicion that someone committed a felony.)

Bel-Air officials say their program has been successful because they employ a higher caliber of guard than most firms and their employees are better trained. Some companies simply hire people off the street who are trying to make a few bucks. But Bel-Air, company officials say, tries to hire ex-cops or people who are on waiting lists at police and sheriff's departments. Ladrido, for example, graduated from a law enforcement academy in San Diego and worked for 10 years as a security officer at the San Onofre nuclear power plant.

At the Wienerschnitzel where she works, recalls Julie Milligan, drug dealers used to hide crack cocaine in the flower beds, hookers solicited johns in front and their pimps hung out in the parking lot. "It took police too long to respond to our calls, but Bel-Air was able to deal with the problem right away and clean it up," she says. "Some criminals don't respect security guards at all, but because Bel-Air works closely with the police they get more respect on the street."

In the past, security guards and police often were at odds, with police deriding the guards as "wanna-bes" or "rent-a-cops." But in Oceanside and many other Southern California neighborhoods, law enforcement agencies are now so overwhelmed with calls that they are thankful for any assistance they can get.

The Oceanside Police Department has lost 30 officers in the last three years because of budget cuts--they are down to 165. Now, they are often able to respond immediately only to the most serious calls; everyone else has to wait.

The Bel-Air guards work well with his men, says Police Chief Bruce Dunne. Every day, the department faxes Bel-Air a list of cars stolen in the city, occasionally invites guards to department briefings and shares information with them on the street. And because police officers in Oceanside ride alone in patrol cars, they appreciate it when Bel-Air guards back them up on traffic stops, Dunne says.

Private downtown patrols are "a very significant law enforcement trend," he says. The nearby city of Vista has initiated a similar program with another security firm, and several other cities have contacted Bel-Air, the agency's officials say. "Our officers know they can't do it all themselves anymore," Dunne concedes. "Like it or not, that's just the way it is now with shrinking budgets and resources."

Dunne's mother lives in an Oceanside seniors' community and she wanted a police car to patrol her neighborhood on weekend nights. But Dunne's officers are too busy responding to calls to break off for such routine patrols. So he had to tell his own mother that he could not spare the officers.

ON THE STREETS OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, SECURITY GUARDS ARE NOW facing the same dangers as police, but without the pay, the protection or the benefits. Five security guards have been killed in shootouts this year in Los Angeles County alone, and many others have been wounded.

Evan Elko, a supervisor for All Time Private Security, was on patrol in South-Central when he pulled into a fast-food restaurant where one of his guards was stationed. As he walked across the parking lot, a car pulled up and two gangbangers jumped out and ran toward a group of teen-agers. One blasted a teen-ager with a shotgun and his partner shot one of the others with a pistol. Before Elko could get his gun out of the holster, the man with the shotgun turned on him.

"You've got to go," he said, shooting Elko in the chest at point-blank range.

Elko, who was wearing a bulletproof vest, staggered backward and reached again for his .357 Magnum, but the gangbanger with the pistol shot him in the arm. He was rushed to an Inglewood hospital with a collapsed lung and nerve damage from the arm wound. When he was released from intensive care three days later, a nurse wheeled him into a double room. The second bed was occupied; the patient was the gangbanger who had blasted him with a shotgun. He had been wounded by the second security guard and his partner drove him to the hospital and shoved him out by the front door.

"I couldn't believe it . . . talk about getting stressed out," Elko says. "I called detectives and the hospital got me out of that room right away." The gangbanger was arrested before he left the hospital.

Elko, 38, a high school graduate who has worked in security for more than 15 years, has been out of work for months. The nerve damage to his arm is so extensive that he can barely dress himself. Until last month, he had been surviving on workers' compensation payments and probably will never work the streets as a supervisor again. He is not trained to do anything else, but his wife, Keiko, wants him to find another line of work. She used to watch the news every time he was on patrol to make sure he was not involved in any of the night's shootings. Then early on a Sunday morning in January she was awakened by the phone call she had long dreaded. A security company official informed her that Evan had been shot.

"This job is even more dangerous than being a cop . . . because when you are hurt, unlike a cop, you're on your own," Elko says. "People still think twice about shooting a cop. But a security officer is just a regular guy who happens to be wearing a gray uniform. You're an open target."

IN SOUTH-CENTRAL, POLICE say, Latino immigrants had accused security guard Jody Ahrens of stopping them, asking for their identification and then stealing money from their wallets. State investigator David Fernandez, in an undercover operation, parked a car near Ahrens' post, pretended he was sleeping and waited. He wore a hidden microphone and LAPD detectives listened nearby.

After ordering Fernandez out of the car, Ahrens said, according to court records: "I'm a white man with a gun that doesn't like . . . Mexicans parking in the driveway that like to drink. . . . Get away from your car. . . . You don't want me to beat on you, do you?"

Ahrens drove the car to a nearby parking lot and locked the keys in it with the engine running.

"Have you ever had you car stolen, Chuy? . . . ."

"Why'd you lock my keys in the car?"

"Because I'm an asshole. . . . What are you going to do about it?"

Ahrens was arrested on the spot. But a few months later, while he was awaiting trial, he got a job with another guard company. And he was arrested again: While on patrol, police say, he whipped out his pistol and pointed it at a motorist in a traffic dispute.

Fernandez and the other investigators for the state Department of Consumer Affairs respond to hundreds of complaints every year about security guards. Fernandez recently busted a company for hiring a number of felons to work as guards in shopping centers, malls and fast-food restaurants from the San Fernando Valley to Redondo Beach. The company issued temporary guard cards and never sent the applications to the state for required criminal records checks. One of the company's guards, who had spent time in prison for burglary, was arrested by the LAPD for assault with a deadly weapon while he was on duty. While awaiting trial he continued to work his post, Fernandez says. Another guard at the company, Fernandez discovered, was a convicted murderer from Texas.

Nationwide, about 10 security guards are arrested every week for a variety of crimes, estimates Ira A. Lipman, president of Memphis-based Guardsmark, one of the country's largest firms. Lipman, who has written extensively about the security field, has for years pressed for stiffer requirements and better training for guards.

"California's better than most states, but look at how many criminals there are working as security officers," Lipman says. "And in 11 states there are no regulations whatsoever. In any one of these states a convict could be released from prison in the morning and be walking a post for a security firm in the afternoon."

The Hillside Strangler, Kenneth Bianchi, rejected by both the Los Angeles Police Department and county Sheriff's Department, worked for several private security firms in the 1970s. In the late 1980s, a Pacific Palisades security guard on night patrol was charged with the kidnap, rape, robbery and murder of an 18-year-old girl.

Two days later, a security guard in Contra Costa County, despondent over what he called a "crummy job," opened fire in an industrial park where he worked, killing two workers and wounding four.

Last year, about 1,900 applicants were denied guard permits because of criminal histories, according to state records. Another 2,000 guards who were working posts had their permits revoked because they had committed crimes during the past year.

State Department of Consumer Affairs officials are currently attempting to put together a task force to draft stricter legislation regulating guards. And Rep. Don Sundquist (R-Tenn.) has proposed a federal bill that has the support of industry critics. It calls for a criminal history check, a 10-year prior-employment check, a psychological evaluation, submission of fingerprints to the FBI and more extensive training and screening.

"It's simply unacceptable to hire someone right off the street and put them at a post guarding millions of dollars worth of property," says Gerald Arenberg, director of the National Association of Chiefs of Police. "With some of these security firms all you're getting is a warm body. That's a formula for disaster."

Armed security guards account for only about 10% of the nation's total private cops, but in inner-city areas the numbers are growing. Kevin Pyles, who walks a beat at Ujima Village, a federally owned apartment complex near Watts, says he would not consider coming to work if he could not carry a gun. He has been shot at several times and another guard at the complex was wounded.

"Maybe you don't need a gun in a gated community . . . but most gated communities don't have people drinking 40-ouncers and carrying loaded nine-millimeters," says Pyles at Ujima Village on a Friday night. "No way I'm walking around with just a baton."

But security experts contend that guards receive inadequate firearms training and that the potential for abuse is great. In California, armed guard applicants must undergo 14 hours of training, which includes six hours on the firing range. But the training is geared to target shooting rather than preparation for situations guards are likely to encounter on the streets. The average training for a police officer is about six months, eight hours a day.

Sending young guards into inner-city neighborhoods with a pistol and a patrol car is a dangerous proposition. Elko, the wounded guard, is a Vietnam veteran who has taken classes at reserve police academies and believes he was prepared for security work. But most guards, he says, have no idea how to handle themselves on the streets.

"Better training couldn't have saved me . . . when a guy suddenly pulls a shotgun on you and-- boom! --pulls the trigger, there's not much you can do," he says. "But there are a lot of situations where the right kind of training can save you. Armed patrol officers aren't getting that today."

Unarmed security guards undergo even less training. In California, applicants can work as unarmed guards if they pass a 25-question, open-book exam that covers areas such as citizen's arrest powers and other rudimentary issues. They can work while their employer does a background check, which can take up to six months. And because officials only check California criminal history, applicants could have committed felonies in other states and still be cleared to work here.

SECURITY GUARDS IN AMERICA were watching factories and ships at port in the 18th Century, more than a century before the nation's first police department was founded. Firms like Pinkerton's thrived in the 19th Century, providing security for railroads, banks and companies with violent labor disputes, says Robert McCrie, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York.

In California, there was explosive growth in the security industry during World War II, when there was a sudden demand for weapons plant guards. The industry continued to grow after the war as defense contractors proliferated. And in the past decade, McCrie says, the fear of crime has fueled an even greater demand for private security.

The National Institute of Justice study says about 1.6 million people work in the nation's security field--which includes guards, armored car drivers, private detectives, alarm company workers and employees of security equipment manufacturers--about three times as many people as in official law enforcement agencies.

"The private security industry has grown to where it now dwarfs public law enforcement," the report found. "It outspends them by 73%. . . . Private security is now clearly the nation's primary protective resource."

The nation's public law-enforcement agencies are so understaffed that the Senate this month overwhelmingly approved a massive five-year crime-fighting package that would include putting 100,000 more police on the streets. Still, the growth in private security will continue to outpace that of public law enforcement, says William Cunningham, who co-authored the National Institute of Justice report. Private security now is a $64-billion-a-year industry, with more than 10,000 firms nationwide, he says, ranging from the lucrative security giants, such as Pinkerton's and Burns International Security Services, to mom-and-pop operations with a handful of guards.

Because of the industry's growth, police today are just one facet of public protection, says Cunningham, who heads a Virginia research and consulting firm. In many communities, police are the "call of last resort . . . when people start shooting, you call the cops," he says. Private security patrols, he says, "are the wave of the future."

In Los Angeles, the rising crime rate is creating a mood of fear that is fueling the demand for private security. "There isn't a community meeting I go to where crime isn't the No. 1 issue," says City Councilman Zev Yaroslavsky. "People are spending money on security guards out of fear. They are afraid and they want to do something about crime and they want to do something about it now."

Some view the growth of security in Los Angeles as a disturbing symbol of a deteriorating city. In William Gibson's new novel "Virtual Light," he portrays Los Angeles in the year 2005 as a place so hostile and dangerous that residents hire armies of security guards, who roam the city in armored Land Rovers, keep their semiautomatic pistols in holsters Velcroed to the cars' consoles and wear boots with bulletproof soles. They patrol neighborhoods of heavily fortified "Stealth houses." And there are so many crime calls that guards monitor them from dashboard computer screens linked to a communications satellite.

Gibson credits author Mike Davis' "City of Quartz" for inspiring his vision of the Los Angeles of the future. And Davis contends that Southern California, right now, is well on its way to becoming the paranoid, security-obsessed region Gibson describes.

"Private security is totally, utterly out of control," Davis says. "I realize the city is dangerous, but this push for security has exceeded all rationality and even become an issue of prestige. People can tell someone's status by how much security they have. It's just like families sending their kids to private schools. There should be one standard of education for everyone, just like there should be one standard of security for everyone. We're getting further away from that in Los Angeles every day."

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