Homeless in Vancouver: A problem with security guards and 9-1-1
On Friday evening, I witnessed the tail end of an incident on South Granville. An off-duty security guard I know quietly came to the aid of a female mental patient who is notoriously difficult to help.
In this instance, his biggest challenge wasn’t the woman’s intransigence but the hoops a 9-1-1 operator made the guard jump through before the operator would dispatch an ambulance.
The incident shines a bit of a light on the fact that community policing in Vancouver is increasingly being left in the hands of private security guards and it raises a question, in my mind at least, whether these so-called rent-a-cops have the necessary training and credentials to be taken seriously by both the public and the emergency response system.
A compassionate response is called for
At about 9:40 p.m. Friday evening, the off-duty guard was at the Chapters bookstore on South Granville Street.
A woman was wandering aimlessly in the bookstore. Store clerks had clearly seen that she was visibly bleeding from what appeared to be self-inflicted knife cuts on both her forearms. She moved slowly and gave the impression of being disoriented and/or medicated.
I don’t know if the woman has been in Chapters before but I know she is not a stranger to some other South Granville merchants.
Back in February, I tried to help her in the McDonald’s just around the corner on West Broadway from Blenz. She wouldn’t be helped. Wouldn’t say a word.
On that winter’s day in February the staff behind the counter wouldn’t serve the woman but they were also disinclined to call an ambulance. Because—they told me later—she had come in once before in the same condition and didn’t wait for the ambulance, so why call one now?
I harangued the staff into calling paramedics even as a customer in line dismissed the woman’s cuts as “superficial”.
Friday evening, the off-duty security guard knew all about the woman and knew that if he approached the woman—so much as tried to talk to her—she would leave before help could arrive. She wanted to be ignored and left alone. The minute she realized she’d been noticed, she would flee the attention.
The guard realized the only thing to do was to maintain the lowest profile and call 9-1-1 without alerting the woman; then keep an eye on her and hope an ambulance arrived quickly.
The 9-1-1 operator wasn’t having any of that.
“Please don’t ask me these questions!”
I’m told the operator persisted in asking a lot of questions such as “Is she bleeding?” and “Have you checked her pulse?”
The operator simply couldn’t—or wouldn’t—grasp the situation though the security guard tried to explain things clearly. He also identified himself as a security guard.
But it made no difference. The frustration was audible in the guard’s voice as the 9-1-1 operator talked her way through the same script she probably was supposed to follow for every call from an ordinary citizen.
You have to wonder if police officers are subjected to the same checklist when they call for an ambulance.
Finally an ambulance was dispatched. And fortunately it arrived in time to intercept the woman before she left the bookstore.
The paramedics told the guard they were very happy to find the woman. She had escaped from a hospital and her caregivers—again.
The system worked, just not very well
This was a good outcome—the staff of the Chapters bookstore, the adjoining Starbucks, and the private security guard should be commended for their quick thinking. The guard in particular showed fine judgement.
Because he was off duty at the time of the incident (wasn’t on the clock, wasn’t being paid), I’m choosing not to identify either him or his company. I did speak to him briefly after the incident to get a few more details I wasn’t privy to as a late spectator.
The reason why I’m blogging the incident is that I think it highlights the fact that Vancouver’s 21st-century beat cop is the private security guard. I also think that society—citizens and institutions—haven’t taken adequate note of the fact.
There’s a good chance the first “official” responder to a street emergency in many parts of Vancouver will be a private security guard. That guard may be able to do little more than dial 9-1-1.
But if private security guards are becoming the acceptable and more affordable substitute for police, particularly in shopping areas, does the emergency response system respect and trust private security guards’ the way it does police officers? And should it?
If a real Vancouver Police officer requests an ambulance, does a dispatcher quibble? I would expect they trust the judgement of the police officer.
In the case of the private security guard on Friday evening, it appeared that their credentials gave them no special credibility with the 9-1-1 operator. They were, it seemed to me, treated no better than an ordinary private citizen with the operator feeling the need to double check that the call was a real emergency.
And it’s true that security guards can often be little more that ordinary citizens in policelike uniforms. Their uniforms say nothing about the level of their training and I think that is no longer acceptable.
Do the bank guards you see everywhere have first aid training? What about the loss prevention officers you are not supposed to see?
And what about the private security guards employed by many of Vancouver’s 22 business improvement areas (BIAs)?
The privatization of public safety
Vancouver’s BIAs raise their annual budgets through special property tax levies within their areas. The budgets range from hundreds of thousands to millions.
The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Area has the largest budget of all.
The DVBIA’s 2014-2015 budget, according to the BIA 2014-2015 budgets submitted to Vancouver City Council, is $2,640,235. Fully $1,082,129 of that budget is earmarked for “Safety and Security”, which covers loss prevention officers, security consultants, and the Downtown Ambassadors program.
The Downtown Ambassadors are blue-uniformed private security guards who patrol the DVBIA. As of April 1, all the guards in the Downtown Ambassador program are supplied by the private security company Securiguard.
The South Granville BIA covers a small area—little more than the strip of South Granville Street from the south foot of the Granville Bridge to 16th Avenue.
The SGBIA 2014-2015 budget, as indicated in the BIA budget renewals for 2014-15, is $585,000. “Safety and Security” accounts for $162,500 of the budget, covering the Concierge program, loss prevention teams, and street audits.
The South Granville Concierges are Ambassadors with slightly different duties and a fancier name. As of June 12, Securiguard had the contract to supply South Granville’s Concierges and loss prevention officers.
Policing in the age of “good enough”
The budgets of all 22 of Vancouver’s BIAs for 2014-2015 totals $10,174,902. Nearly 23 percent of that total—$2,334,976—is given over to security spending. It’s worth noting that all of that security spending is accounted for by only 17 of the BIAs. Five BIA are spending nothing on security this year.
Back in 2009, all of the 2004-15 BIA security budgets combined could have paid for approximately 14.5 Vancouver Police officers, according to the Vancouver Sun’s calculation that in 2009 the average Vancouver police officer cost $160,000 a year.
The Downtown BIA’s Ambassador program alone employs 18 full time security guards and an unspecified number of loss prevention officers. And the South Granville BIA employs a further two full-time Concierges and, as I understand, two loss prevention officers.
I don’t know what the other security-minded BIA are putting on their streets, but in total the BIAs will be getting a lot more warm bodies by going with private security than they possibly could using real police officers.
So security guards are cheaper than police officers. Duh!
The thinking in Vancouver City Hall must be that police officers are over-trained for the simple job of addressing street disorder, curtailing shoplifting, and providing street directions.
I say that because, although it is BIAs—particularly Downtown, South Granville, and Strathcona—that are employing private security to act like beat cops, it was the City of Vancouver that created the BIA system back in 1999 and continues to administer and audit the budgeting process.
The city created and maintains the conditions allowing and encouraging BIAs to hire private security guards to fill policing roles the city would otherwise have to fill with more expensive, better-trained police officers.
The BIAs themselves can and do point to the fact that they are not spending taxpayer money; that each of the BIAs raise their budgets through a special tax levy on property owners within the boundaries of their BIA.
This is true up to a point—the point when the property owners pay the levy.
After that, the property owners will naturally pass the cost of the levy on to their commercial tenants in the form of higher leases. Those tenants, being the businesses in the BIA, will just as naturally pass the cost of those leases on to their customers in the form of higher prices.
Most of those customers will be Vancouver taxpayers. So we see how the taxpayers ultimately pay for the activities of Vancouver’s Business Improvement Associations in the form of higher store prices.
The other point I would make about the growing use of private security guards to provide low-level policing is that private business sets the agenda for these guards not the City of Vancouver. The standards, qualifications, and duties are as varied as the 17 BIAs that budget for security.
So the Downtown BIA’s Ambassadors each carry first aid kits and they all have first aid training. The South Granville Concierges, on the other hand, have neither first aid kits or the training to use them.
However, I understand the Concierges have a broader brief when it comes to physically ejecting troublemakers from South Granville businesses. I believe the Downtown Ambassadors are still not allowed to physically engage people at all.
Of the two kinds of security that BIAs employ, the loss prevention officers have the most training and authority—they are empowered to detain and handcuff suspects.
Private guards require public awareness
Whether or not the city has been using the BIAs to save money on policing is now beside the point. Private security has an entrenched foothold in public policing. And I think politicians and institutions in Vancouver and Victoria need to catch up to the reality.
To me, this means legitimizing and professionalizing the kind of “para-policing” that has become a fact in all but name. It’s time to raise and standardize the required skill sets and qualifications required to hold a security guard job such as the BIAs have created over the last seven-plus years.
Right now there is no telling what qualifications a BIA security guard (or any other kind for that matter) has.
There should be no question that such guards, no matter where you see them in Vancouver have—among other qualifications—basic first aid training, non-violent conflict resolution skills, and a clear understanding of the laws regarding street disorder.
These security guards who are employed to work in public full time should be held to a high enough standard that the public (and 9-1-1 operators) can confidently take them seriously.
If that means they need to get paid a bit more, then so be it. What’s the harm in raising the BIA tax levies another few percentage points? After all it’s not coming out of taxpayers’ pockets, right?