On weekend nights, McDowell Road is crowded with cruisers, the air pulsating with the thump of superamplified car stereos. The store also serves as home base for the area's transient population, some of whom camp in nearby alleys, their crash spots marked off by empty bottles and piles of debris.
By 1 a.m. on a recent Saturday, though, traffic on McDowell has dropped to almost nothing. The Circle K parking lot is largely deserted. But it does not lack for drama.
Two men who look like members of a police SWAT team are frisking a young man splayed across the hood of his Honda.
Crisp black shirts and black fatigue pants are tucked into black combat boots. Handcuffs and pepper spray hang from belts already weighted down by 9 mm pistols. Extra clips, too.
These are not the city's finest, however. They're employed by Phoenix Security International, a relatively new company that has a contract with Circle K to provide security for the chain's Phoenix stores.
The crime: peeing in a parking lot. The young suspect was caught, quite literally, with his pants down. The two security guards, also very young, go about their pat-down as if Carlos the Jackal himself were face down on the hood.
Eventually, the security duo calls in the real police, and points out the puddle of urine in the corner of the parking lot. The Phoenix police officer notes the puddle's size and location. He gives the guy a ticket and turns him loose.
As far as the police are concerned, the guards have acted within their authority. They have exercised their citizens' arrest powers--the same as a bouncer throwing a rowdy patron out of a bar, or a homeowner subduing a burglar on his property.
"It's a pretty basic right," says Sergeant Mike Torres, a Phoenix Police Department spokesman. "You're allowed to escalate your level of force one level beyond your adversary's in order to restore order."
But the specter of black-clad security forces rousting a motorist who peed in a parking lot illustrates a debate that is taking shape in the public sector as well as within the private-security industry itself.
The security business is booming, with companies pushing into a relatively new residential market. More and more neighborhoods are relying on private guards to provide some kind of protection that once was handled by real police officers.
But concerns are growing, too, ranging from the quality of training to whether guards should carry guns to, as in Phoenix Security's case, even what they wear.
Since 1992, the number of licensed security companies in Arizona has nearly doubled, from 110 to 195, following a national trend.
According to statistics provided by the American Society for Industrial Security, an industry lobbying group, the number of companies engaged in security work across the country has more than doubled since 1980, from 70,000 to 160,000 in 1996.
Today, ASIC estimates that the security industry employs some two million people. By comparison, according to Department of Justice figures, all the nation's law-enforcement agencies combined employ only 685,000.
Much of the growth has occurred in workplace security, with large corporations simply finding it more economical to contract out rather than hire their own in-house muscle.
But other companies are moving into areas traditionally handled by local police. Companies like Safeguard Security have made a specialty out of patrolling the gated communities that have flourished in newer, more affluent parts of the Valley. Now, the move is toward providing the same service in older, unfenced--yet still affluent--areas of the city.
Tired of getting burglarized, homeowners in Encanto-Palmcroft, an exclusive, central Phoenix neighborhood filled with stylish older homes, recently contracted with Arrow Security, a newcomer to the Phoenix security market, to provide armed patrols aimed at rousting transients from nearby alleys.
The service, which started up in early August, costs the neighborhood about $48,000 a year, and is paid for by about 200 homeowners who have agreed to chip in $20 a month.
Phoenix police spokesman Torres says private companies are about the only way home and business owners can expect personalized protection.
"We're a reactive organization," Torres says. "If people want to be proactive, they have to take it upon themselves.
"As long as they stay within their bounds, we don't have a problem with it."
Others aren't so sure, including many within the industry itself.
Right now, the state Department of Public Safety is unhappy with Phoenix Security International because the company is putting guards on the street that look too much like Phoenix police officers.