With the Olympics and growing homelessness, the security industry is thriving, but what does that mean for the rest of us?
Greg Klein will never forget the night two "thugs" threatened to assault him in one of the roughest areas of East Vancouver. He claims he was walking down Victoria Drive north of Hastings Street in June 2006 when two men approached him and warned him to leave or they would break his arms. He quickly left the area to call 911, but a dispatcher told him no police officer would be available for hours.
After he calmed down, Klein said, he returned to the scene of the incident to record the men's licence plates. That's when the real trouble began. He related what happened next in a complaint filed later with the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner.
"A very big guy grabbed me, ripped my shirt and held me while the other pinned my arms behind my back and hand cuffed me," Klein stated in his complaint. "Then they shoved me down on the ground so I was on my knees with my forehead against the pavement."
Klein, 54, said he filed the complaint because he was dissatisfied with the police handling of the incident. In a recent interview at the Georgia Straight office, Klein said that after being held facedown on the ground for several minutes, he was allowed to stand. It was only then that he learned that the two men were unlicensed private security guards working for a film-production company shooting in the area. According to Klein, they were not wearing uniforms and had no markings on their vehicles. The security guards then called the police, who arrived within minutes.
The licensing of security guards, or lack thereof, has recently attracted the attention of Vancouver-based human-rights and civil-liberties groups. According to provincial statistics, there are 38 percent more licensed security guards than police officers in B.C. Terry Kennedy, communications director of the B.C. Human Rights Coalition, told the Straight that by 2008, the number of private security guards, both licensed and unlicensed, could outnumber police 5:1.
Kennedy said the security industry is presently experiencing a "very healthy growth rate" and "taking over functions that used to be played by state security services such as police".
However, industry defenders say security guards enhance public safety and have played a role in reducing Vancouver's crime rate. Ron Foyle, head of R.J. Foyle Security Consultants, told the Straight that with Vancouver preparing to host the Olympics in 2010, there is a likelihood that the private-security business will continue to grow over the next three years.
Foyle, a retired Vancouver police inspector, also shed light on the close relationship between private security firms and local police departments. "You can go into just about every one of the private security firms and you'll find retired or semiretired police members in it," he said. "There is a basic training that we all went through, and a certain camaraderie that exists between us that kind of never dies."
In a reply to Klein's initial complaint about the police response, Vancouver police inspector Rollie Woods wrote: "There is considerable discrepancy in the version of events as relayed by you, and the version given to the police by the two security guards."
Woods wrote that the security guards claimed Klein was "observed acting in a suspicious manner", and "believed that you were trying to break into movie trailers". Woods's reply continued: "Both security guards described your behaviour as both erratic and aggressive." The complaint was dismissed.
To this day, Klein does not know the names of the men who handcuffed and threatened him, or even who they were employed by. He said that when he asked the Vancouver police for the name of the guards' employer so he could file a complaint with the company, the VPD told him that information was "confidential".
Klein said that he considered suing the security guards but decided against it. "I can't afford to launch a lawsuit, and I don't know how to go about it on my own," he said.
Murray Mollard, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, told the Straight that there are more private security guards on the streets than ever. "It makes a difference, because these people tend to have all the kinds of interactions that the police will have," he said. "I think they play on their perceived authority."
In the early 1990s, Mollard was working with then-justice Wally Oppal as a principal research assistant during Oppal's public inquiry into municipal policing. This included an examination of the private security industry, with the goal of increasing accountability. But Mollard told the Straight that very few of Oppal's recommendations were adopted by the provincial government. For example, the Oppal report suggested that "the province”¦require specific training standards for all security guards/patrol personnel", and that "the province”¦enable the Registrar to conduct a full investigation into any allegations of misconduct". To this day, Mollard said, only licensed private security guards require training, and the investigation and auditing of security businesses remains weak.
Mollard recalled those years as the "days of the Wild West" for the private security industry. He recounted memories from the early 1990s of dropping by what was then called the security-programs division of the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General–which regulates and licenses the industry under the Private Investigators and Security Agencies Act–and finding he had to wait for employees to finish their game of cards before they would meet with him. He added: "I'm not convinced that the Wild West has been conquered, actually."
Klein's next step was to report the security guards to the ministry's security-programs division, now the security-programs and police-technology division. That complaint did not get far either.
In an April 3, 2007, letter to Klein, the B.C. minister of public safety and solicitor general, John Les, wrote: "I am advised that the Ministry staff did follow-up on your complaint regarding the alleged actions of the security guards. However, as the security guards were deemed to be providing 'in-house' security”¦the legislation and regulations associated to the Private Investigators and Security Agencies Act do not apply."
Klein discovered that the security guards who detained him were not licensed, which he described as "a massive loophole in the system".
"For example, licensed security guards aren't allowed to use handcuffs; they aren't allowed to carry them," he said. "But there is an easy way around that: you just use nonlicensed security guards."
The existence of unlicensed security guards alarms lawyer John Richardson, executive director of Pivot Legal Society. He told the Straight that a complaint against an in-house, unlicensed security guard can be filed with a guard's employer. The only other options are to file a civil lawsuit or a complaint of discrimination, or to press criminal charges. He added, though, that Crown counsel "usually won't proceed" with charges unless police have recommended such action.
There are two "problematic issues" associated with the private security industry, according to Richardson. "First, there is the unauthorized use of security-guard power," he said. "Security guards shouldn't be going beyond their legal powers; [they shouldn't be] searching people and asking them to leave public places."
Richardson revealed that Pivot will soon publish the findings of a survey it conducted in September that attempted to assess Downtown Eastside residents' interactions with private security guards. Citing that report, which is scheduled for release later this fall, Richardson said that 15 percent of the public's interactions with security guards occurs on public streets, "with people being asked to move on or even being searched".
Richardson noted that such actions are illegal on public property without a person's consent or without the private security guard first making a citizen's arrest. He explained that they happen because of the public's lack of understanding of private security guards' powers and because of security guards taking advantage of that lack of understanding. "A security guard can ask someone to leave a store," Richardson said. "They can't ask someone to leave the sidewalk in front of the store. But they do that."
Former Vancouver police inspector Dave Jones is a security consultant for the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. He provides "advice and consultancy" to the DVBIA's so-called Downtown Ambassador program. Jones told the Straight that the role of the red-jacketed, patrolling Downtown Ambassadors is focused on hospitality, but that they also act as "eyes and ears" for problems and respond to complaints from businesses. "The ambassadors probably spend more time trying to help street people than they do trying to persuade them to behave a little nicer," he claimed.
Jones noted that the DVBIA contracts security services from Genesis Security, and that all Downtown Ambassadors are licensed.
On September 26, Genesis Security celebrated its 10-year anniversary at its office in Kitsilano. Combine the firm's DVBIA contract with its work in the entertainment district on Granville Street, and Genesis is likely Vancouver's most visible private security company.
All Genesis employees are licensed security guards, the firm's president and CEO, Camil Dubuc, told the Straight, "from my receptionist to the patrols on the street". Training at Genesis Security, which runs its own security-guard school, consists of 64 hours of instruction spread over two weeks. As many as 900 security guards a year are trained at Genesis, Dubuc said.
"In the industry, there are problems," he conceded. "Somebody with the right experience and right training will not go over the line. But if you have someone with no experience and you put them in the heat somewhere, they may overreact a bit."
Dubuc said that what separates the good private security firms from the bad is knowing what situations your staff can handle and not taking on jobs that will put them into situations beyond their training. "Some get greedy and try to get too much work," he said. "You put someone who works for us in the line of fire”¦you compromise the whole industry."
Another issue that Pivot's upcoming report will deal with, Richardson said, is the "discriminatory application of power" that private security guards allegedly practise. "Security guards are more likely to confront or challenge people”¦when those people are of lower income," he said. "If they're on welfare, on disability, if they are homeless, if they appear to be poor, they are more likely to attract the attention of security guards and be confronted."
Asked how many people make complaints against private security guards, Richardson replied, "None. There is a complaint process for security guards, but it's not very well known at all."
THE SECURITY PROGRAMS and police technology division of the solicitor general's office is supposed to regulate the private security industry. Its director, Kevin Begg, told the Straight that the role of public police is not shrinking, but that private security is increasingly necessary.
"Private security is primarily focused on the security of private property," he said. "Where it gets complicated is where you have private property that has public access, such as malls, transportation corridors, those sorts of thing."
Begg said it is his division's job to strengthen regulation and oversight so that private security can perform a useful function. His office sent the Straight a list of "violation tickets" it had issued to private security companies. From January 2004 to the end of September 2007, there were 290 tickets issued. They all involved licensing and regulatory issues, and there is not one case of excessive use of force or wrongful search and seizure on the list.
Begg claimed that could be because such complaints can be handled as criminal matters and so might not be dealt with through his office. But he also noted that allegations of security-guard wrongdoing on private property "are tough cases to prove".
Last April, the B.C. legislature approved a new Security Services Act, which will become law when the cabinet approves a regulation spelling out more details. According to Begg, the provincial government is aiming to have the new legislation in effect by the end of 2007.
He said that under the new legislation, all security guards will be required to have licenses and therefore be responsible to the solicitor general's office. The new regulation, pursuant to the statute, will also include a code of conduct, a complaint process for private security guards, and powers of inspection and audit for the solicitor general's office, Begg said.
The Security Services Act has already come under fire from the BCHRC, BCCLA, and Pivot. In a joint April 2007 news release, the three organizations said they are "deeply concerned that the new bill is missing key components that will ensure both competency and accountability for B.C.'s rapid growing security sector".
Pivot's Richardson said that it is a "very good thing" that all security guards in the province would soon be licensed and that a complaint process was in the works. But the legislation still "doesn't go all the way", he added.
Richardson said that the Security Services Act itself does not include a code of conduct, which is necessary for accountability. He said a regulation with such a code can be easily changed by the government without debate, such as with an order-in-council. "If you are going to have a structured complaint process," he said, "you have to know what the boundaries are."
Mollard told the Straight that the BCCLA has been involved in discussions with the government about the new act, but that he doesn't feel his group's views have been incorporated sufficiently into the legislation. "We'd asked for security companies and licensees to be required to record and report critical incidents," he said. "Because often, nobody knows these things happen and complainants don't really know where to go."
ACCORDING TO statistics released by the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General, the number of licensed security personnel in B.C. increased from 8,285 in 1996 to 11,684 in 2005. Statistics for unlicensed guards are not being kept.
Begg said there was "no doubt" that the private security industry is growing in a number of ways. "If you look at this from an economic perspective, there is obviously a demand," Begg said. "The industry is moving to meet that demand."
Municipalities also have a stake in this issue. The City of New Westminster, for example, is examining the costs and benefits of expanding the use of private security in its downtown area, according to a staff report that went to council on October 1. But is all the extra security necessary from a safety perspective? According to provincial crime trends recorded by the Ministry of Public Safety, the number of property crimes in B.C. decreased by 21 percent between 1996 and 2005. Over the same period, the number of licensed private security personnel increased by 41 percent and the number of police officers increased by 21 percent. (Ministry statistics from the period 1996 to 2006 actually show a 27 percent decrease in property crime.)
In a phone interview, SFU criminologist Robert Gordon told the Straight that such statistics raise an intriguing question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Gordon, director of the school of criminology and a former London, England, police officer, suggested a declining crime rate could be the result of a more visible security presence. "So if one were to say, 'Crime rates are falling, therefore you do not need security personnel,' you might be barking up the wrong tree," he said.
Matt Hern, author of Watch Yourself: Why Safer Isn't Always Better (New Star Books, $22), claimed it didn't matter what came first, or even if crime rates were going up or down. In a telephone interview with the Straight, the East Vancouver writer said that what the security industry will always argue is that its services are increasingly needed.
Hern explained that when security cameras were installed all over London in the early part of this decade, crime went down in some areas but went up in others. Where crime went down, U.K. officials claimed that the security cameras were working and used this as justification to install more. In areas where crime went up, officials argued that there were not enough security cameras, which was the rationalization to increase their number. "So you're caught either way," Hern said. "It's an ideological argument”¦that is not particularly interested in invoking facts unless they happen to suit the argument."
Back in vancouver, where Hern noted that he is seeing an increasing number of private security guards patrolling his neighbourhood, Richardson said he is not surprised by Klein's story or by the VPD's response. He said he has heard stories of people who felt they were abused by security guards, took their complaints to the police, and were then ignored by the police, who sided with the security guards.
"People may have their issues with the police, but the bottom line is that they are in the public service, paid for by the public, and serving the public interest," Richardson said. "Private security guards serve private interests and are not required to do that same type of balancing."
Klein, feeling that he had no avenue for holding the private security guards accountable and sure that their actions against him had been illegal, decided to focus his efforts on the police. He followed through with his complaint for 14 months until finally, on August 21, 2007, he received a letter from police complaint commissioner Dirk Ryneveld that ended the matter. Ryneveld stated in his letter: "I am not satisfied that the public interest requires or merits a public hearing in this case." Klein said he felt he had exhausted all options.
"Really, the part of this whole thing that bothers me the most is the Vancouver police decision," he said. "That an extremely vague, unsubstantiated allegation of suspicion justifies the actions of those security guards, justifies the use of handcuffs, and justifies detention."
VPD spokesperson Howard Chow told the Straight that the name of the guards' employer could have been withheld from Klein for "privacy issues". Regarding the possibility of a criminal investigation, Chow claimed that the incident was investigated when the police responded to the security guards' 911 call. "That was investigated at that time," Chow argued, "and they didn't warrant charges against the security-guard company."
Klein said he was "not confident" about the proposed legislation for private security guards if his experience was any indication of how complaints will be handled. "Despite what the Vancouver police and OPCC say, it's illegal to handcuff and detain someone–let alone commit assault–for no better reason than a vague, unsubstantiated allegation of suspicion."