Last year, the number of private security guards in British Columbia hit an all-time high, bouncing back from a slight dip the industry encountered in 2010.
According to Ministry of Justice statistics, there were 16,409 guards licensed under the Security Services Act in 2014. That’s up from 15,641 the previous year and more than double the 7,743 security guards registered a decade earlier, in 2004.
In a telephone interview, Doug King, a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society, asked if the industry will ever stop growing. “You have to wonder, where are all the guards going?” he said. “What are they doing?”
The licence category in question includes guards like those positioned at the entrance to a bar or nightclub, those patrolling private properties such as a mall or construction site, and those that monitor public spaces for community organizations like the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association. It excludes positions like armoured car guards and building-alarm responders.
King noted the sector is better regulated than it once was. Five years have passed since the final implementation of the Security Services Act and that legislation tightened licensing requirements. But it may have done little else, King added.
An online record of violations tickets confirms King’s characterization. The act includes provisions for how complaints regarding physical misconduct should be dealt with; however, in 2014, for example, there were only 13 tickets issued to security guards, and all of them were for licence infractions or bureaucratic transgressions.
“Any time the police use force, they have to tell the police complaint commissioner or make a report about it,” King emphasized. “We don’t have that with guards. A guard can injure somebody seriously and nobody hears about it.”
It’s often not until an incident makes it onto the evening news that a formal review is conducted, King said. As examples, he pointed to an October 2012 incident where guards at Pacific Centre were caught on video mistreating a man in a wheelchair, and the December 2013 death of Lucia Vega Jimenez, a Mexican immigrant who killed herself while in the custody of private security guards contracted by Canada Border Services Agency.
“That was a wakeup call,” King said of the later incident. “Private security has become so entrenched that they are taking the place of what is commonly seen as a police officers’ duties.”
The Justice Institute of B.C., which trains private security guards as part of an agreement with the Ministry of Justice, referred questions to the province. The Ministry of Justice did not make a representative available for an interview.
Tom Stamatakis, president of the Vancouver Police Union, told the Straight there are complementary functions that are appropriately carried out by private security guards.
“There is no role for a public police officer to stand inside the dollar store worrying about security,” he explained. “That store can be dealing with those issues on their own.”
At the same time, Stamatakis said there are situations that could be better served by a police officer that’s held to account via government review.
“There are very legitimate concerns around the increased role of private security in public spaces,” he maintained. “We have to remember that these are for-profit companies that are making decisions based on the bottom line and not on public interest.”