Are armed security guards the answer to violence in stores?

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The upsurge in violent and aggressive behavior in retail stores may be enough for some retailers, even those who thought they would never consider the idea, to consider deploying armed security guards at outlets.

Some retail establishments, such as jewelry stores, often deploy an armed officer; others may deploy armed officers to certain high-crime areas. In cannabis retail stores, “armed guards were seen as a useful theft deterrent in the dispensaries where they were used,” according to a 2021 study published in the Social Change Journal. This past holiday season, several major retailers announced plans to increase security to protect shoppers and employees, to include armed officers to visually deter criminal activity and violence.

The armed officers’ case appears bolstered by recent events, such as the devastating May shooting at a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 people dead. Electronic security systems, CCTV and unarmed security guards can shorten police response times and provide situational awareness and evidence, but against an armed intruder who is not afraid of being captured or killed, they don’t really offer much in the way of prevention.

According to a current marketing pitch from a private security company, there is currently a noticeable increase in armed security. “A growing number of retail establishments are choosing to protect their employees and inventory with armed security, especially luxury retail businesses that have recently become targets of violent robbery,” the report said. The company hasn’t provided any data to back up this claim, but it doesn’t seem entirely implausible either.

Some time ago, when an armed security guard helped foil an armed robbery at a movie theater in Madison, Wisconsin, local media said it signaled a changing of the guard. “The unarmed day watchman is giving way to a more highly trained armed security guard,” a 27 News reporter said.

The problem, however, is that “highly trained” and “armored” are not always synonymous.

Due Diligence Required

In December 2021, a Midwest supermarket chain announced it was hiring new security teams suggesting many would be armed. Most officers would have law enforcement training, be specifically trained to defuse situations, and undergo extensive training designed by the company’s retail security managers. But the company also noted that their rollout would begin in stores that use contract security guards – and while armed contract guards are often highly trained, this is a fact that needs careful verification.

State legal requirements for training private security guards who carry firearms still vary widely, including requirements such as classroom training, written exams, criminal and civil liability training, refresher training requirements and required training hours.

Some previous studies have concluded that training for armed private security guards is “notoriously lacking”, and industry surveys have shown that organizations that use armed security guards believe that contracted security companies are relatively unable to meet standards and specialized training needs. In short, just because a contract security guard is authorized to carry a firearm does not mean that the client company will be comfortable with the level of training they have received.

The data also hinted at the problematic outcome of insufficient training. A study from the past decade looked at several years of data from the state of Florida regarding weapons discharges, which must be reported to the state’s licensing authority whenever a private security guard shoot a gun. This study found that nearly half the time state contractors fired their guns, it was by mistake.

In about 50% of incidents, security guards fired their weapon because of a confrontation, according to data analysis of state reports. But almost as many discharges “were accidental or irresponsible, even reckless”. More than five percent of all discharge reports detailed incidents in which officers protecting retail establishments fired warning shots to get shoplifting suspects to stop or shoot cars of shoplifters as they fled store parking lots. This has certainly changed since the time of the study, as retailers changed their policies regarding the interception of shoplifting subjects, but it’s a data point worth remembering.

Poor judgment isn’t the only potential problem. The most disconcerting statistic revealed by the analysis is how often an armed contract security guard’s firearm “just went off”. Accidents, defined as the careless discharge of a firearm, accounted for more than a third of all discharges, strongly suggesting a weakness in firearms training, according to the study’s author. Almost half of the accidental discharges occurred during loading/unloading, which clearly indicates insufficient training.

Accidental discharges by police are rare in comparison. A jurisdiction in California with 800 police deputies had zero such incidents over a five-year period, for example. Such a disparity is likely the result of the difference in training requirements for police versus private security, and although the gap has narrowed in many jurisdictions, the minimum standards required may be insufficient to ensure use. safe and sound judgment by armed private security guards.

Because a state license may not provide a guarantee of truly adequate training, retail organizations must ensure on their own that agents guarding their properties have received sufficient instruction. Given the potential damage that armed officers can cause, training in the use of force is essential. Agents must undergo a significant amount of live scenario training to test their response to different levels of conflict with a qualified instructor. This is essential for officers to practice using the least lethal security tool that can resolve the situation. Too often, when a firearm is available, officers use it to resolve a conflict instead of a tool more appropriate to the situation, such as verbal de-escalation, handcuffs, truncheon, pepper spray, etc.

Companies may also want to consider whether officers have experienced live-fire scenarios, which involve instructors acting out a scenario that officers are likely to encounter, which is then projected onto a screen at a firing range; cover drills, which add movement and distraction to target practice (usually static); and weapons retention training, which teaches officers how to block individuals’ efforts to seize their weapon.

Finally, annual refresher training is essential to prevent accidents involving weapons. Some states require three times more retraining for armed private security guards than others.

Each company must weigh for itself the pros and cons of having an armed security presence, an assessment that should be reviewed periodically. In addition to the fact that armed officers cost more to deploy and other reasons to exercise caution, organizations using armed security officers should investigate the training these officers receive.

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