In 1992, New York became a nationwide leader in efforts to clean up and professionalize the private security industry when Gov. Mario Cuomo signed the Security Guard Act. For the first time, beginning a couple of years later in 1994, security guards employed in New York were required to register with the state and go through mandatory yearly training.
But more than two decades later, as their resources dwindle, the state agencies in charge of overseeing the private security industry struggle to make sure companies and the guards they employ are following the rules. A City Limits investigation reveals a messy training school system in New York, full of discrepancies and misinformation, where it’s even possible to “buy” a certificate without going through any of the mandatory training.
Over the last couple decades, there have been calls to update the Security Guard Act, but aside from a few tweaks here and there, the requirements haven’t changed much since 1992. In interviews with City Limits, not only did industry leaders and researchers say they wanted to see changes, but guards themselves said more oversight and better training is needed.
To be a licensed guard in New York, you must be must be 18 years old, attend an eight-hour training course, pay a $36 application fee, pay $102 to get fingerprinted and go through a federal background check to make sure you have not been convicted of a serious crime. Once a guard has been hired, she or he must also complete 16 hours of training within 90 days and must complete eight hours of training (what guards refer to as their “annual”) every year. Armed guards must complete a 47-hour course before employment.
The rules aren’t exactly onerous. Nick Sierra, 23, started working at a Duane Reade earlier this year and says his training was for the full eight hours, but said the class was “easy” and “common sense.”
“To get a license, all you need to do is watch a video, take a test,” he says.
Yet the “diploma mill,” where schools hand out certificates for a price, as well as schools that don’t make guards stay for an entire day, is still a problem in New York. In an informal survey of 35 active guards, 27 guards of varying levels of experience told City Limits they have never never sat in a class for more than five or six hours when taking either of the eight-hour required courses. Eleven of the guards said that the 16-hour, on-the-job training course is often completed in eight hours rather than split into two eight-hour days.
“I was there for 30 minutes. They already had [the certificate] printed out,” says 32-year-old guard Luis Baez about his experience taking the eight-hour annual training class. “They give you a bullshit test and they give you the answers. You fill in the bubbles and that’s sent to the state.”
At the time of the test, Baez recalls, he thought it was great. Many guards have to pay for the training out of their own pocket and take the class on their off days, so getting credit for the training without sitting in a classroom for eight hours makes it easier on the guard.
“You know, at the time, I was thinking, ‘This is cool, I’m back home, I have the rest of the day,'” he says.
That was in 2011, and that school, National Security Training & Placement, has since had its license revoked. Now Baez says he actively seeks out a training school that actually does the training because he sees the value in yearly refresher courses. He even started a blog where he lists schools that have had their licenses revoked.
“I think it is necessary for there to be yearly training or else you’ll have these people making it up as they go along, not knowing what their role is.”
As for the background check that licensed guards have to pass in which they are screened for “serious crimes,” the definition of “serious” is a bit vague and it doesn’t just mean felonies. If a misdemeanor offense relates to the duties of a security guard (theft, fraud, forgery, assault and others), the state can reject an application.
“There is no mathematical formula for determining an outcome, but rather a balancing test requiring judgment on a case-by-case basis,” writes a spokesman for the state Department of State, which handles guard licensing.
Most people who apply for licenses make the cut. In 2014, the state processed 35,244 new guards, as well as 45,219 renewals. Only 1.1 percent were rejected — mostly due to a criminal conviction. Rejected applicants can appeal a decision and argue their case at an administrative hearing.
There are exceptions even to the fairly minimal requirements. If you retired as a police officer within the last 10 years, you don’t have to do any of the training except annual firearm training. Former corrections officers, bridge and tunnel officers, court officers and clerks, sheriffs and peace officers also don’t have to do any of the initial eight-hour or 16-hour training, but some of them have to do annual training.
Shrinking School System, Same Problems
The eight-hour training course must be completed at one of the more than 400 privately owned schools that have been approved to issue training certificates.
There is massive inconsistency among those schools.
Some schools charge students $80 for their eight-hour courses while others will charge as little as $30. One school in the Bronx charges $50 for both of its eight-hour courses, but when a reporter called to ask about classes, the company said it would cost an additional $50 if you were traveling from Queens, inexplicably claiming that they only do “inner-borough training.” Many guards we spoke with have to pay for this training out of their own pocket, something they think is unfair.
We also found confusion from guards about who actually needs a license. One guard, who asks we only name him as Randy, is stationed at the front entrance of a clothing store on 5th Avenue dressed in all black. He says his employers told him he didn’t need a license because he wasn’t apprehending anyone. But, he says, he used to work as a guard at Old Navy and there his supervisors required licenses.
The state Division of Criminal Justice Services (DCJS) is in charge of overseeing the training of the approximately 69,000 police, 103,000 peace and 180,000 security officers currently in the state’s training registry — as well as the hundreds of privately-owned schools that provide the training to guards.
Since 2010, 26 guard training schools have had their licenses revoked. Sixteen of the schools had their approval revoked after conducting classes shorter than eight hours, simply selling certificates without providing any training, or combining classes — which means brand-new guards taking their initial eight-hour class along with veteran guards who were are supposed to be doing more advanced, on-the-job training. Curriculums at the schools can vary significantly, but the state does require rookie guards and people already on-the-job to have different classes tailored to their experiences. Other violations include not having approved instructors or curricula or failing to provide contact information for the school director, according to a breakdown provided to us by DCJS.
DCJS has tried to keep on top of the rule breakers, but its staff has been reduced significantly in recent years, from more than 700 employees a decade ago to around 400 now. So the agency has had to get creative.
“Our efforts to target fraudulent security guard schools that prey on men and women seeking jobs – including enacting tougher regulations and requirements for school approval and renewal, working with law enforcement officials who have pursued criminal prosecutions and civil actions to bring scam artists to justice and auditing rosters and other documents schools are required to file with the state – have produced results,” Janine Kava, a spokesperson for DCJS, wrote in an email.
Rather than launching random audits or investigations, DCJS decided instead to institute a more passive way of getting rid of the bad apples: The agency jacked up the application fees for schools and instructors. At one time it was free for a school or an instructor to apply for state approval. Starting in October 2009, it cost $1,000 for schools to apply and $500 to renew every two years. Instructors were asked to pay an initial $500 fee, with a $200 renewal fee every two years. In 2011, DCJS also made schools get fire inspections and certificates of occupancy and submit photos of their site, in an effort to get rid of “living room” training schools.
Their approach has worked to an extent. In 2007, there were 888 security guard training schools approved by the state. As of last month, there were less than half that number: 404 schools.
In 2014, DCJS changed its rules for school directors. For the first time, directors had to be licensed guards, and the agency added a provision requiring that applicants “possess standards of good character, integrity and trustworthiness.” DCJS also added definitions of the “defective business practices” that they get complaints about frequently, including selling certificates, combining classes, promising jobs and tricking guards into taking training they don’t need.
But there are indications the same old problems persist.
Nowadays, a majority of the investigations conducted by DCJS’ five-employee Security Guard Unit come from complaints from students. Others come from problems with class rosters submitted to the state. (The rosters, incidentally, are on paper. The state is in the process of modernizing this process and DCJS says rosters will be submitted digitally later this year.)
Last year, DCJS started an investigation into a Bronx school, LEA For Security Officers, after what seems like a chance email encounter. According to information released at January’s annual meeting of the Security Guard Advisory Council — a 17-member group of governor and legislative appointees who advise the state on policy — DCJS Senior Training Technician Matthew Griffin received a call on November 13 from a guard from Brooklyn named Joseph Richards, who was new to the training renewal process and accidentally signed up to take the wrong class at the Bronx school. Griffin said he called the school and straightened it out so Richards would take the right courses. Griffin told Richards to take a picture of his certificate after he got it and then email it to him so he could get it over to DOS to help Richards get his license back quickly (the usual wait time is 10 to 15 days) and return to his job. But the day of the class, Richards emailed Griffin the certificate in the middle of the day, so Griffin knew something was up.
“Joseph Richards was not there for eight hours. He was there for about 30 minutes to maybe an hour,” Griffin said at the meeting.
That initiated an investigation into the school. DCJS determined the school was also combining rookie and veteran guards into the same classes. The director of LEA, Orlando Rivera, who served as an NYPD police officer for 22 years, denied doing anything wrong and said he thought if he taught two classes in one day he could submit it on one student roster. The school had its approval revoked by DCJS last month.
Concerns about alleged ‘scam’ schools
Another school, Manhattan’s Security for America, also had its approval revoked last month when the state received complaints that the school was advertising on Monster and Craigslist promising jobs, but only for those who forked over $300 to $400 for training courses. There was no job at the end, guards told the state. The owner of the school denied any wrongdoing at its hearing in January.
These alleged tricks are nothing new. The state Attorney General’s Office reached a settlement with 1st Security Prep and Placement in 2013 for promising guards jobs if they paid hundreds for training. In 2011, the AG’s Office reached a $4 million settlement with C.P. International Security after uncovering a similar scheme.
“When you get your certificate you aren’t expecting these kinds of problems, but these schools don’t care about these young men. All they care about is taking their money,” says Leroy Abramson, 74, a 32BJ member who has been a security guard for 16 years.
“I don’t understand why these schools exist, because you ain’t learning what’s really going on in these jobs. I’ve done security for 15 years in retail stores, office buildings and hospitals and I can tell you that none of the training schools prepare you,” says a guard from the Bronx who works at One World Trade Center and asked we not print his name.
“I think the state should take over the training and make sure that we’re not only prepared for the type of security work we will be doing, but that young brothers and sisters don’t get scammed by these hole-in-the-wall places,” he adds.
Law-breaking schools rarely get the attention of prosecutors. “The DAs and the attorney general can prosecute these cases, but they are investigating murders and significant crimes. They are not going to expend resources to find out who is [selling certificates],” says Robert S. Tucker, CEO of T&M Protection Resources and chairman of the state’s Security Guard Advisory Council.
Tucker was originally appointed to serve as vice chairman of the council in 2009 by Gov. David Paterson and in 2013 was appointed chairman by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
Tucker told City Limits that there should be more enforcement and said he would “love to find a way to work with the governor” to make it more of a priority. He said DCJS is “so overworked and so understaffed, it’s pathetic.”
“The enforcement mechanism to go after illegal training schools from whom you can buy training certificates without sitting for the training and other illegal practices that go on in our industry has a budget that is so small it’s embarrassing,” he said.
Inadequate training and sketchy schools have occasionally gotten the attention of public officials. A survey of more than 100 Manhattan guards, conducted in 2005 by New York City Public Advocate Betsy Gotbaum, revealed a number of problems with the security guard industry, including poor training. Gotbaum, who titled her report “Undertrained, Underpaid, and Unprepared,” called on the state to make changes to the Security Guard Act and called the training requirements “outdated.” Nothing, as far as City Limits can tell, was ever done at the state level.
In fact, we looked up recently introduced legislation in Albany related to security guards and found bills that would exempt more people from training, including former sanitation officers or border patrol agents, as well as a bill that would allow armed guards and licensed private investigators to carry high-capacity magazines.
Since Gotbaum’s report in 2005, the staffing at state agencies in charge of overseeing the guard industry — and making sure guards are being trained adequately — has been reduced over and over again by the governor and legislature.
One change that the Security Guard Advisory Council is pushing for is online training. Currently, DCJS provides training to police and peace officers online, but not for guards, which would require a change in state regulations. The Council supported a proposal for online training of guards, which would be controlled by the state. Other states have already adopted similar programs.
DCJS urges guards who encounter scam schools to contact them.
“We urge anyone with information about fraudulent schools to contact us (at 518-457-2667) as we want reputable schools to thrive and those that that take advantage of prospective students out of business,” Kava wrote in an email.
The limits of retraining
The need to re-train police officers comes up in media coverage and policy discussions all the time, but the topic is rarely broached in relation to security guards. And when it does, the nature of the private-security industry makes it difficult for any public agency to make change.
Recently, in response to a number of incidents at city homeless shelters, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced he would have security staff at these shelters re-trained. But his re-training initiative will not cover a majority of the security personnel at the city’s shelters. The re-training covers the 600 or so peace officers, but not the more than 1,000 private security guards who work at the shelters.
Those 1,000 guards are contracted by the city, but they are employees of a private company, FJC Security. De Blasio simply doesn’t have the power to require them to go to more training. The company would have to agree to do more training on its own, or the city would have to go to the state to change the existing rules. (FJC did not respond to a request for comment). Right now, those guards are only required to do what the state requires.
Currently, the rules are the same statewide and industry-wide. New York has a “one size fits all” law for guards, meaning there is no difference in training or licensing requirements for a guard working at a bank near Wall Street versus one who works at a clothing store 300 miles north near the Canadian border. The law also makes no distinction among the different settings where guards work, which means guards who work at a retail mall looking out for shoplifters may be in the same state-required training classes as a guard who waves a metal detector wand at a government building or checks bags at a public landmark.
While it’s been the norm in New York state and elsewhere to have one set of statewide regulations for guards, three states in the last decade or so have recognized there needs to be a difference. Colorado, Indiana and California now have stricter application and training regulations for guards employed in Denver, Indianapolis and Los Angeles, respectively.
Dr. Mahesh Nalla, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University and one of the few researchers interested in studying the private security industry, says that having minimum requirements is important but categorizing industries and requiring more training for guards in major cities like New York City would help better prepare guards.
“Right now, it’s left to self regulation. Businesses decide what’s good for them,” he says.
Private companies who employ guards can, of course, make their own guards go through in-house training that’s directly related to their job. But the current law doesn’t require them to do so.
“The reality is, the onus is on the firm, the entity, to determine if they are going to do it or not,” says Mario Doyle, CEO of Doyle Security Services and chair of the Associated Licensed Detectives of New York State (ALDONYS).
Doyle says he thinks there should be different requirements for guards working at sites with different needs. “A guard doing loss prevention at a Duane Reade, does he need the same type of training that someone protecting a power plant does?” he asks. “No.”
If you’re one of the 12,000 or so guards in the city represented by 32BJ’s security division, you have more training options. The union provides training — both the state required and also additional training — to its members.
“One of the core things we have tried to do over the last 10 years is to get rid of these fly-by-night training companies, because they only hurt security guards who are trying to do real work in the city of New York,” says Denis Johnston, vice president of 32BJ, in an interview with City Limits. “This is why 32BJ offers courses for our guards, but these contractors need to invest in these courses as well, and right now it would only cost them $300 a year per member. This is something the security guards need.”
Like any job, training in the security industry can’t prepare a guard for everything she or he might come across on a daily basis.
George Rivera, 59, a longtime guard who works at clothing store in the Bronx on East Fordham Road, says his store’s policy is to call the police if stolen merchandize is more than $20. But what about the mother stashing clothes in her stroller under her baby, who says she’s trying to get money to buy milk? “Sometimes it touches me,” Rivera says. “I won’t call the police.”
Rivera says he’s gone to training where the class is just three hours long. But even when he’s gone to classes that are the full eight hours, he said it doesn’t help him at all. “Every year, it’s the same thing,” he says, also pointing out that he thinks it’s odd that guards are required to do annual job training, but that training is only so you can keep your license, not to help advance your career.
Sierra, the 23-year-old guard who works at a Manhattan Duane Reade and wants to be a cop, tells us he learned a lot his first month on the job.
“You have to sound intimidating, make it look like you have power,” he says about what he does when he comes across someone stealing.
Store policy is if the amount someone attempts to steal is over $50, the guard is supposed to call the police. Sierra says he’s had to make that call at least once a day — at least when we talked to him after his first month on the job. If it’s just a beer, he says he tells the thief to give it up and get out.
“Some guys know that we can’t touch them,” he says about the people he catches someone stealing. “They say, ‘What are you gonna do?'”
He says he knows he doesn’t have a lot of power and that his main function is to deter theft. “We’re a deterrent,” he said. “The boosters with duffel bags, they turn around when they see me.”
Asked if any of the training he took was valuable at his job, he says one thing has helped him so far: The class stressed that guards should always be mindful of their own safety—that sometimes it’s not worth intervening if you think an exchange may end violently.
Pointing to a display of Mott sliced apples and fruit salads, he said: “This stuff is not worth getting stabbed over.”
This is the second of two parts in our series looking at the explosive growth and limited regulation of the security guard industry. Click here to read part one. The story was made possible through the generous support of the Fund for Investigative Journalism.