That armed security guard you walk past in Kansas City could be a convicted felon or someone not properly trained to safely handle a weapon.
To keep such people out of security uniforms, Kansas City police are cracking down on licensing regulations. Previously, sporadic enforcement allowed unlicensed guards to take positions throughout the city with little fear of being discovered.
Recently, a Police Department unit that oversees private security guards found more than 125 unlicensed guards working at about a dozen companies.
One company had more than 40 unlicensed guards.
"The people who are unlicensed, we have no idea who they are and what their background is," said Tamy Gallagher, who supervises the Kansas City Private Officers Licensing Section. "If they don't have any training and they don't know the guidelines, that's a huge liability."
Beginning last week, Gallagher's staff got the green light to arrest unlicensed guards. Those arrested could be charged with impersonating a security guard and face a $500 fine or 180 days in jail.
Gallagher's staff recently checked for licensed guards at a variety of businesses: retail stores, hotels, casinos, hospitals, shopping malls and apartment complexes.
Many of the offenders were large chain stores, whose managers said they were not aware of the licensing requirements in Kansas City. Other violators denied that their employees -- some of whom were wearing uniforms that said "security" on them -- were working as guards. One hotel told Gallagher that an employee wearing a security uniform actually was a concierge. A store that sells housewares said its loss-prevention employees were building maintenance workers.
Some security companies refused to tell Gallagher's office where their guards worked, making it hard for police to check their licenses. Gallagher fined 26 companies $25 each and increased the fine for those that did not pay and comply right away.
Complaints from some of the 250 law-abiding security companies prompted the crackdown. Gallagher said they were "sick of playing by the rules when they knew other companies were not."
A regulated company pays an annual $250 fee, plus $70 a year per armed security guard.
Money generated from the fees pays salaries and expenses of the licensing section.
Security guards have authority similar to police officers, said Lisa Morris, the Police Department's general counsel, who also oversees the licensing section.
"You don't want people out there exercising police powers who don't have the basic qualifications of a police officer," she said.
The licensing regulations require that security guards meet basic qualifications, including a written quiz on the extent of their authority. For example, guards have authority only on company property and not beyond that. The regulations also require armed security guards to pass an annual firearms qualification test.
Morris said that in the past the licensing office had done periodic inspections, usually only after a specific complaint about a guard or company. Now, she said, "It's time to remind everyone: This is the law and they have to follow it."
Some companies view the regulations as a hassle, Morris said, but others appreciate the office's goal of increasing the professionalism of all security guards.
"It's a burden," said Greg McQuade of Metropolitan Patrol, a security company in Claycomo. "It does put more restrictions on security agencies. However, I feel it's necessary."