Homeless in Vancouver: A problem with security guards and 9-1-1

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      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?

      Stanley Q. Woodvine is a homeless resident of Vancouver who has worked in the past as an illustrator, graphic designer, and writer. Follow Stanley on Twitter at @sqwabb.


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      Aug 11, 2014 at 4:57pm

      a sick society no one wants to fix because of the huge amount of money required to do that. Ignore it maybe it will go away. But it wont of course. That woman should be put in a locked room but that costs money no one is willing to give so those with the power to do something cant and leave it to the street to take care of her and secretly hope she just goes away to someplace else.
      But as always, if nothing is done then the problem of sick people wandering the streets will only get worse.
      Its obvious what this city and province needs is for the wealthy to get proactive and kick in more dollars.
      But the wealthy dont give a fig since they are not really permanent residents of the places they choose to inhabit.

      Sharon Townsend

      Aug 15, 2014 at 11:33am

      Stanley you got some of your facts correct, but others not so much.

      BIA's have been around since 1970's and Vancouver's first BIA was established in 1989 - Gastown and Mount Pleasant.

      Security guards serving in the South Granville area are in fact licensed and trained - including first aid, and conflict resolution.

      Your 'understanding' is incorrect. Under NO circumstance is a South Granville Concierge permitted to 'physically eject troublemakers' from public property.

      As for your concerns about 911 - we could not agree more. We have a great working relationship with our Community Policing Officers and we hope that will continue but 911 always poses a certain frustration. 311 is not much better.

      Thanks you for giving credit to our off duty guard who as a citizen cares about people long past working hours. He is a excellent team member and his actions are far more indicative of our program than the rentacop scenarios you suggest.

      Sharon Townsend
      executive director
      South Granville BIA

      Stanley Q Woodvine

      Aug 15, 2014 at 9:23pm

      @ Sharon Townsend

      Fair enough about my getting the originating date of Vancouver's first BIAs wrong. I apologize about that.

      If the SGBIA Concierges have first aid training they are not seemingly all aware of this fact.

      I have heard that SGBIA Concierges are NOW receiving nonviolent conflict resolution training through Securiguard -- good thing.

      I've previously watched SGBIA Concierges/Ambassadors seriously aggravate situations through lack of any such training.

      I am not aware that all security companies are providing their guards with such training.

      Right now there is not necessarily any consistency of training between the variously sourced private security guards that may be employed by the 17 BIAs that have security budgets.

      As for the off duty guard in question. I agree he is exemplary.

      But that's seemingly down to his character as much and likely more than any training he has received.

      Every SGBIA Concierge/Ambassador I have known has carried out the job VERY differently and that pattern continues with the SGBIA's current team of Concierges.

      Phill Mcrackin

      Aug 16, 2014 at 5:13pm

      security guards in this neighborhood are trained like Siberian Special Forces. Trained to take punches not to dish them out. 911 can be a little bit robotic and primitive sometimes agreed. when one is grinding such numbers relevance must be drawn towards the direction of value, as well as efficiency. people underestimate the broad spectrum of scenario training these guards are trained capable of dealing with. private security also allows security members to be more attentive to certain areas of the city more so than police.reasons are obvious no explanation required.also one must consider quality control as well as harm reduction factors.in the future I see private security becoming more technologically advanced also absolutely everywhere.hypothetically speaking these people perhaps can achieve solutions for 9 out of 10 calls they receive without involving police. some people think private security is silly and only good for carrying groceries for people. Street people pass out and overdose frequently everywhere downtown Vancouver and I know the private security people call ambulances and check on these people frequently. customized special security forces are simply the way of the future.

      Sharon Townsend

      Aug 17, 2014 at 11:44am

      In order to be a security guard in BC you must complete Justice Institute of BC training and licensing. That licence can be rescinded. Each security company has their own set of requirements/training beyond that.

      Vancouver BIAs take their security programs very seriously. We know we are interacting with the public, that those security workers are often viewed as representatives of our organizations. We walk a very fine line between serving the interests of our members, functioning within the parameters of the law and 'public perception'. In our decision to change security providers... training, supervision, and protocols were significant factors in our choice. Hiring practices were also critical.

      Security personnel are people just like everyone else. Some care more than others, some have better days than others, and sometimes that same person that they are trying to help on Wednesday, threatened to harm them on Monday for a similar level of concern. Some hope to move into the police force, and others simply need a job. When I get the right type of security guard I tend to do everything in my power to keep them around as long as possible. They are like gold.

      Private security is not something we ever wanted to get in to. BIAs were not established for such activity. We would have much preferred the uniformed Beat Cop that walked our neighbourhood, knew peoples names, knew the trouble makers, and generally have a visible presence on the street - day and night - 7 days a week.

      Establishing a security program was an act of surrender for us. We endlessly asked for more support but were told there is no money and other neighbourhoods have more pressing issues. So, the challenge becomes one of allowing things go to hell in a hand basket until public outcry demands attention, or do you see the need, ask a million times and then simply do it yourself. A little like a Mexican stand off.

      We have long advocated for a 2 tier policing system so that not every officer came with a $160,000 price tag. There are some union issues that get in the way of that solution - not just resource constraints.

      So, in the mean time we do the best we can and hope our communities are just a little safer, and perhaps a little kinder.

      Stanley Q Woodvine

      Aug 17, 2014 at 9:45pm

      Sharon Townsend writes:

      "Establishing a security program was an act of surrender for us".

      Good for her for saying it.

      This is not a case of the City of Vancouver governing wisely, in my view at least.

      I see it as a case of the the city not governing and instead passing the buck.

      If it works out, the city can take credit for creating BIAs and encouraging "neighbourhood" governance. Otherwise the BIAs would wear any failures or problems.

      Hard to see any problems though.

      The BIAs are even less transparent than City Hall. The system of BIAs encourages -- not exactly secrecy -- but certainly privacy. After all the BIAs are not public bodies they are run by private business. So the BIAs feel none of the pressure that the Vancouver Police feel to publish detailed statistics of what their security guards deal with annually.

      I know the SGBIA is very interested to compile such statistics. But they would say those stats are their business alone.

      I think Vancouverites should be made aware of the issues of cost, necessity and expediency that seem to be (have been) pushing us inexorably towards handing public safety over to private security firms who are answerable to...? Particularly in the year of a civic election.

      Sharon Townsend

      Aug 18, 2014 at 8:36am

      we also don't report how much litter we pick up, weeds we pull or graffiti we remove from city streets.

      The assumption is that our security programs are quasi police - again, they are not. They serve the role of engaged citizen... from days gone by that helps someone fine the book store, or tells them the time, or reports abandoned garbage or in the incident you mention - calls for help when someone needs it. Hardly newsworthy.


      Jan 6, 2015 at 5:16am

      I know this is a stale entry but thought I'd add a bit of info.

      When you call 911 for an ambulance the call is created and the ambulance is dispatched as soon as a location is determined (usually within seconds).

      After the call is created and the ambulance is dispatched then the questions are asked. The questions are to prioritize a limited resource (ambulances).

      If these questions were not asked then an ambulance could be sent to something very low priority (blisters on feet) instead of the heroin overdose with someone turning blue that is one block over.

      In the example given "Is she still bleeding" it means that all things being equal you'd probably want to have an ambulance first go to the patient that was actively bleeding vs. a patient that had cut themselves but it wasn't bleeding anymore.

      As for who it is calling - it doesn't change anything - each call has to be prioritized; the mayor calling with tennis elbow is asked as many questions as the girl watching her boyfriend overdose.

      For people calling 911 it seems like everything is taking a very long time - in reality an ambulance can be heading towards you in seconds and to ask all of these questions usually takes under 60 seconds.

      If you are a frequent caller of 911 (like security guards) then time it sometime - I think you'll be surprised to see how quick the process actually is.