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Nonprofit fires security company after video shows guards detaining homeless men

The body-worn camera footage is jarring, both for its content and unsteadiness.

A San Diego nonprofit organization that serves disadvantaged people recently fired its security company after the San Diego Union-Tribune inquired about a videotape that shows guards confronting and detaining some homeless men loitering near a creek bed.

The 24-minute recording was captured in September by a body camera worn by a guard employed by Chula Vista Private Security, the company the Jacobs Center for Neighborhood Innovations has used for years to patrol the area around its Euclid Avenue headquarters.

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In the video, a guard is seen pulling a homeless man’s arm behind his back and forcing him to the ground because he tried to walk way from the guards. A police investigation was recently completed and the case has been forwarded to the San Diego City Attorney’s Office.

“I wasn’t even resisting,” the homeless man moaned during the incident, his face held in the dirt as a guard handcuffed him. “It’s too tight … You guys tackled me, man ... It’s not right ... I don’t understand ... I’m completely harmless.”

The man, who later in the video identifies himself as Deangelo Mitchell, was one of three men who had wandered into Chollas Creek, near the Jacobs Center, before they were approached by four Chula Vista Private Security guards.

As Mitchell whimpered in pain, a guard pointed a stun gun at the other two men and ordered them to stay put. They also were handcuffed.

“You tried to walk away from us,” one guard said. “You should never have done that.”

By the end of the video, all three men were released and warned not to trespass again. The guards are seen on the video confiscating drug paraphernalia, including needles and a pipe commonly used to smoke marijuana.

“Tell all your friends: If somebody tells you ‘Stop, you’re being detained’, you never try to walk away,” one of the guards advised before letting the men go. “It could get very violent.”

Under state law, private security guards may only use reasonable force if they feel threatened. Guards are not permitted to seize property — even contraband.

They also are required to contact police once they make a citizen’s arrest. Sworn police officers are the only people who may legally decide whether to cite, release or arrest a suspect after a citizen’s arrest, by state law.

After the Union-Tribune shared the video with the Jacobs Center, a public relations firm issued a statement saying the charity had severed its relationship with the security firm.

“JCNI believed CVPS would remove trespassers by asking them to leave or by calling the police,” the statement said. “It appears CVPS personnel’s actions were inconsistent with our expectation and agreement.”

Bertrand Gines, a Chula Vista Private Security licensee, said the incident was an isolated case and an unfortunate mistake made by under-trained employees.

“That’s the only time that happened,” he said by phone. “I took immediate action on that real quick. I got after everybody.”

Gines said two guards were fired and two suspended, although one of the guards disputed to the Union-Tribune that he was fired. Gines also said he stepped up his background checks for new hires and ordered additional training so guards know their legal and professional boundaries.

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San Diego police received the video in December and interviewed the guards. None of the men who were handcuffed filed complaints. Police Lt. Brent Williams said the department has completed its investigation and sent the information to the City Attorney’s Office.

Mitchell did not respond to messages left on his wife’s mobile phone.

He accepted $500 from Chula Vista Private Security as compensation for the incident and agreed not to sue the company or discuss what happened, according to an agreement obtained by the Union-Tribune. Gines said he paid Mitchell $1,500 for his trouble and a pledge not to sue him or his company.

According to the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, the state agency that licenses private security companies and guards, security officers have no greater legal authority than any civilian. The agency training manual emphasizes that private guards should prevent confrontations and generally limit their involvement with people to observations and respectful questioning.

Spokesman Ben Deci said private guards are not allowed to seize property.

“The bureau is unaware of any laws that authorize a security guard to confiscate personal belongings,” Deci wrote in an email. “Neither the Private Security Act nor the Power to Arrest training manual provide that authority.”

Sergio Avila, a former employee who said he was one of the guards in the September video, said he was not involved in subduing Mitchell.

“There was no need to brandish any kind of weapon because these guys were not a threat,” Avila said.

Gines said Avila was primarily responsible for the misconduct captured by the body-worn camera and that Avila was one of the two guards he fired as a result of the recording.

But Avila, who had been on the job for less than two weeks at the time of the encounter, rejected that claim.

He said he was injured in November and decided then that he could no longer work for the company. He provided text messages from January showing that Gines wanted him back on the job once he healed.

“Please update me when you’re ready to return to work with CVPS,” Gines wrote to Avila early last month. “We have locations for you.”

The Union-Tribune could not positively identify the other guards in the video but obtained email addresses from a report of the incident that appeared to belong to the other guards. They did not respond to an email seeking comment.

McDonald writes for the San Diego Union Tribune

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