The Circle K store on the northwest corner of Seventh Avenue and McDowell is probably one of the more beleaguered outposts in the convenience store's empire.
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.
Debbie Turner supervises the state Department of Public Safety's security guard licensing section. She points out that state law requires that a guard's uniform "shall be such that it will not deceive or confuse the public . . ."
Turner says Phoenix Security's uniforms violate those guidelines, adding that DPS has been "negotiating" with the company to get it to change its look.
Brian Frederick, a 30-year-old ex-Marine military policeman who started Phoenix Security two and a half years ago, thinks DPS' concerns are unfounded. And, he says, DPS allowed him to invest thousands of dollars in uniforms before ever mentioning that it didn't approve of his officers' attire.
Still, Frederick acknowledges that he likely will have to change his 60 guards' uniforms to keep from losing his license.
"I think my guys look professional and, yes, they do look somewhat like officers in law-enforcement agencies," he says.
It's not just the uniforms that set Frederick's guards apart, though. Visit any of the stores where his officers are posted, and it becomes apparent that Frederick's employees aren't getting paid to stand sullenly by and watch what goes on.
They don't just look like cops; they act like cops, standing out front of the stores in full view and making eye contact with patrons. And they all carry guns, which Frederick considers a necessity.
"I've been in this business too long," Frederick says. "I've been shot at and I've had a bottle broken over my head. A security officer needs a firearm."
Such initiative is relatively new in the private-security business, which for years has embraced a policy called "observe and report" that calls on guards to do just that: watch what happens and call the police if anything serious starts to go down.
Given the increasing demands on police officers' time, Frederick says, such a doctrine is as antiquated as the snub-nosed .38.
"How can you protect your client that way?" he asks. "How can you tell the client, 'By the way, ma'am, if something happens to you on the way out to your car, we can't do anything about it because we're here strictly to observe and report'?"
Frederick says he wants his officers to get involved, to detain suspects and call police only in instances where they are truly needed. The rest, he says, his officers can deal with on their own.
"Of course," Frederick adds, "if something serious came up, we'd call the police for back-up."
So far, it appears Phoenix police have taken little notice of Phoenix Security.
"I haven't heard anything good or bad about them," says Torres, the Phoenix Police Department spokesman.
But Frederick's approach has its detractors in the industry. Jim Edmundson is the vice president of Anderson Security, one of the older names in Valley security. Edmundson says his company, which bid on the Circle K contract but lost out to Phoenix Security, avoids using armed guards whenever possible, preferring its officers instead to maintain the traditional "observe and report" stance.
"If people want armed guards, we can provide that, but it's going to cost a lot more," Edmundson says. "I keep telling people that good security isn't cheap and cheap security isn't good."
If that's the case, the best--certainly the most expensive--security available these days is being provided by off-duty cops.
Bonnie Lucas heads Law Enforcement Specialists Inc., one of a handful of local companies which dispatches police to watch over everything from construction sites to health clubs. Some of her largest clients include Wal-Mart, Wells Fargo, Salt River Project and Price Club.
Lucas, who works out of her home, says she has about 800 police officers from various Valley departments on her rolls, all of them eager to augment their incomes with extra work.
"A safe, happy, satisfied customer is a business's most important trademark," teases one of her company's promotional videos, which depicts friendly, uniformed officers patrolling parking lots, defusing "gang activity" and foiling shoplifters.
The voice-over continues:
"By placing a fully uniformed, off-duty police officer in your parking lot, you discourage vandals, carjackers and thieves."
But all that protection isn't cheap. Lucas says her cops-for-hire go for about $23 an hour, of which she gets a $4 hourly cut. Even the best-paid security officer would be lucky to make half that amount. At Anderson, which offers some of the highest pay in the industry, guards earn between $8 and $10 an hour. Starting pay at most other companies hovers around $6.50 an hour.
Circle K officials, who would not comment for this story, have opted for the cheaper version of what Lucas has to offer: officers who look like real cops, but who don't have the training or experience.
Besides pay, training is another critical issue as dozens of new guards are put into public places. Aside from requiring that armed guards receive eight hours of firearms training from a DPS-certified instructor, there are no other formal requirements mandated by the state.
By way of comparison, most police receive 900 hours of training, of which 80 hours are in firearms, while going through the academy. Once out of the academy, they receive 16 hours of refresher firearms training annually.
All of the companies interviewed for this story, including Frederick's, say they hire only qualified people and train them thoroughly. Edmundson touts his company's training requirements, saying the agency gives its new guards 72 hours' worth and runs extensive background checks.
That may be the case, but the fact is, no one really knows for sure. DPS' Turner says review and oversight of security companies are lax. She points to a single sheet of paper titled "Security Guard Training Program," which lists such categories as first aid, firearms, laws of arrest, search and seizure and criminal law.
Applicants are asked to fill in the blanks, listing the kinds of training their guards receive, as well as duration of training. They are required to have it signed and notarized before returning it to DPS.
"Basically, we're just having to take their word for it," Turner says.
Training horror stories abound. Edmundson tells of classes in which guards were asked to identify the parts on a gun before firing off a clip, first with their right hand, then their left.
"And that was your firearms training," Edmundson says.
DPS also is responsible for ensuring agencies carry liability insurance, and for running background checks on applicants.
According to state law, anyone convicted of a felony, or of a crime involving fraud, physical violence, illegal sexual conduct or the illegal use or possession of a deadly weapon, cannot run an agency or work as a guard, unless he has had his civil rights--i.e., the right to vote, serve as a juror, hold public office or carry weapons--restored by the courts after successfully serving his sentence.
The law also prohibits people convicted of drug-related offenses or theft within the last five years from working in security. Those on parole, or who have outstanding arrest warrants, are also disqualified.
Security-guard criteria are much more lax than those for police officers, who undergo polygraphs, drug screenings and psychological evaluations.
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Nationally, security-guard regulation varies greatly, depending on the state. Some, like Connecticut, have no licensing or regulatory requirements, while others, like New York, have tougher requirements.
In New York, guards are supposed to undergo 47 hours of firearms training before they can carry guns. Yet even there, people have found ways to get around it. Recently, the co-owner of a security-guard training school was arrested for issuing a diploma to an undercover investigator who was given only four hours of weapons training.
Edmundson says the industry is crying out for stricter regulation, and an end to the "rent-a-cop" mentality. Specifically, he says, he'd like to see beefed-up training requirements, and he'd like to see the state take steps to ensure those requirements are met.
Others take a more sedate view.
"We have some regulation--granted, it's not the strictest, but at least we have some minimums, compared to other states," says Jay Jennings, executive vice president of Safeguard Security Services. "And as a businessman, I can see where Jim [Edmundson] is coming from. If you raise the level of the playing field, you make it harder for the new companies to break into the business.