On Guard

Department of Public Safety Sergeant Rudy Buck is truly an army of one.

Buck has the impossible assignment of making sure the thousands of private security guards working in the state are properly trained and licensed. And that makes Arizona residents some of the nation's most vulnerable people when it comes to private security protection.

"I'm the only one doing this for the entire state," Buck says.

His job takes him from Hoover Dam on the Arizona Strip to Sky Harbor Airport to conduct spot checks on security guards.

It's a monumental task, especially since the increased scrutiny of security issues following the September terrorist attack on the United States.

There are more than 200 state-licensed security guard companies doing business in Arizona. These companies employ more than 28,000 state-licensed security guards.

Alarmingly, more than half -- 15,367 -- of these security guards are working with temporary licenses.

DPS is required to issue provisional licenses to security guard applicants after they submit fingerprints, complete a questionnaire and pay $44 in fees.

The temporary licenses are issued prior to the completion of FBI fingerprint background checks that can take several months.

More than 40 percent of the provisional security guard licenses issued during the last six months of 2001 were later revoked because of problems that turn up during the FBI review. Most of the licenses are revoked because applicants failed to disclose criminal convictions.

The high revocation rate of provisional security guard licenses, combined with the lack of state enforcement of security guard regulations, leaves the public unprotected.

"It is well known among inmates in Utah state prisons that Arizona issues provisional licenses for security guards," says State Representative Linda Gray, R-Phoenix, who is sponsoring legislation that would strengthen security guard regulations.

Other states devote far more resources to regulating private security companies. Florida, for example, has 21 investigators policing a private security industry that has about twice the number of guards as Arizona.

"We are definitely overburdened," says DPS Lieutenant Larry Burns, who oversees the security guard licensing unit. "We are trying to do the best that can be done with limited resources."

Representative Gray says she became concerned about the lax regulations after her daughter was stalked by a security guard in 1998 while attending Northern Arizona University

The guard, Jerry Danny Smith, later raped a 15-year-old girl and murdered 23-year-old Victoria Singer in May 1998, with the gun he carried as a security guard. Smith is now in prison.

The Singer family has filed a wrongful-death suit against Smith's former employer, American Eagle Security Company, alleging the company was aware of Smith's prior criminal record. The case is pending in Coconino County.

At the time Smith was stalking Gray's daughter, he was employed as a security guard at her apartment complex and had keys to her apartment. Gray says her daughter received numerous threatening phone calls from Smith until she warned him that she was armed.

"I think that slowed him down," Gray says.

Gray says her legislation would allow DPS to quit issuing provisional licenses to security guard applicants. The bill would also reduce the length of the license from three years to two and increase the cost of application fees.

The bill would also allow DPS to keep all license fees within the agency, rather than turning them over to the state's general fund.

"This will save the public money and make the industry pay for running the licensing unit," says Lieutenant Burns of DPS.

Even with the proposed legislative reforms and the implementation of the electronic fingerprinting system, it will be some time before there are more investigators available to help in enforcing state security guard regulations, says Burns.

Gray says she also intends to introduce language in the bill that would increase the penalty for companies that hire unlicensed security guards from a misdemeanor to a felony.

DPS is currently investigating a security guard company owned by Phoenix City Councilman Michael Johnson, for reportedly sending unlicensed security guards to Sky Harbor Airport.

Johnson was cited by DPS last October for sending unlicensed guards to several state office buildings, but the misdemeanor charge was dismissed by a Phoenix justice of the peace, who said the offense was an administrative matter, not one for the criminal courts to decide.

The pending legislation is intended to clarify such confusion.

The bill would also require more training. Currently, a security guard has up to six months to learn skills like performing CPR and arrest techniques. Armed security guards are required to receive additional training. The legislation would require that all guards receive a minimum of eight hours of training before they're allowed to take a job.

Large companies, such as the Salt River Project that hire their own on-site security guards, are not subject to state licensing requirements, because they generally use more stringent standards for the guards they hire, according to an SRP spokesperson.

Gray's bill was passed by the House Appropriations Committee on Monday, and a similar bill has been passed by the Senate.

Governor Jane Hull supports the legislation, especially reforms that reduce the state's reliance on provisional security guard licenses.

"We want to go ahead and do the best we can to check the backgrounds of people that the public believes are in a position of trust," says George Weisz, the governor's executive assistant for law enforcement and criminal justice.

Separate from the pending legislation, DPS plans to implement a new $600,000 electronic fingerprinting system by October that would reduce to less than a week the time it takes for FBI background checks for security guard applicants.

Mike Timmerman, DPS manager of the applicant processing group in the criminal justice support division, says the new system will allow DPS to electronically transmit fingerprints to the FBI's Integrated Automated Fingerprinting Identification System.

The system will be used to screen the fingerprints of about 225,000 people a year for jobs ranging from day-care providers to taxicab drivers to teachers. There are about 10,000 new security guard fingerprint applicants each year.

The electronic fingerprinting technology, along with passage of Gray's bill, would allow DPS to reduce, or eliminate, the issuance of provisional security guard licenses.

"My intent is to remove those provisional licenses," Burns says.

One of the state's largest private security companies, Burns International Security Services (no relation to Lieutenant Burns), supports reducing the number of provisional guard licenses issued, says Barry Johnson, area vice president.

"The less time they are out there with provisional licenses, the better," Johnson says.

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John Dougherty
Contact: John Dougherty