The security week that was: 02/19/10

When is a security officer not a security officer?

One of the big discussions in our industry this week has been the situation that happened recently at a Seattle transit station where a girl was savagely beaten while three "security officers" looked on. And when I say "looked on," I want to be clear – the beating happened literally at their feet (with the victim being kicked in head at one point) while they did nothing to prevent it.

So, here's the situation: These security officers were contract security officers and were assigned to "observe and report" duties. Since most of our readers are on the tech side of our industry, let me explain the meaning of "observe and report". It means the officers are assigned to take notes on situations, file reports and basically be roving surveillance cameras. They are often specifically told not to intervene, and that if a violent situation develops, they are to call the real responders: law enforcement.

But the problem is that the public assumes the duty of a security officer is to provide security. The public generally thinks that a security officer could get involved in a situation, that whether or not they are armed with a handgun, baton or even a can of pepper spray, they can at least get physically involved in the situation. Unfortunately that's often not the case. These "security officers" sometimes aren't trained on close combat or how to become active in dangerous situations. So what happens when a young girl is being savagely attacked at their feet? They "observe and report." And the girl continues to be beaten. (Fortunately in this case, the girl was OK, though by the YouTube video of this incident, it's hard to believe she was lucky enough to not need serious medical treatment.)

So why do we still call them security officers if they provide no security? I think it's an important question for our industry to answer. Why do we have them dress in uniforms with badges to make them look similar to police and to give them an enforcement presence if they can do no such thing? Would it be better to call them "Courtesy Staff" and simply have them wear nice sweaters and casual slacks and be available to answer questions such as where the restrooms are or where appropriate parking is located? I'm writing with a bit of a tongue-in-cheek attitude here, but I think the question is real. Should we reserve the term "security officer" for an officer who actually can provide some security to persons in his or her area?

Finally, is there any real value to "observe and report" staff? Could they not simply be replaced by surveillance cameras? I've always heard that the defense from the private security services industry is that "Unlike cameras, we can actually respond to a situation." But what about when they can't respond due to post orders?

Finally, the last question I think the Seattle transit situation raises is whether security officers have a "moral" duty to respond, whether or not their post orders say they should respond or not. We're going to look at some of these concerns in our webinar next Thursday on the topic of public transit with former MTA chief of police Doug Deleaver. Join us by registering today.

Please share your thoughts on this issue in our comments section below.