Is BC's private security industry accountable?
Last week, five of our clients reached a settlement with Fusion Security. Their civil case involved allegations of unreasonable use of force and discrimination at the hands of private security guards contracted by the Harbour Centre Mall.
We first brought this case to the attention of the media last summer, after we received three complaints from residents of the Downtown Eastside about their experiences with security guards at the Harbour Centre Mall. After the three men went public with their stories, two more people came forward with similar allegations. In each case, the men were low-income and regulars at the BC Liquor store in the mall.
A settlement wasn’t what any of the guys were after when they came to us. Mostly, they wanted to be heard and they didn’t want anyone else to go through what they had been through. It was really powerful for them to have an opportunity to tell their stories and to connect with each other, and in the end I think they were pretty satisfied with the process. The one regret they expressed is that they do not know what happened to the guards or whether any changes have been made by the company. I share that regret, and it leaves me questioning whether a private civil settlement is enough to deal with the systemic issues raised by this case. I am also disappointed that the provincial regulator has been so absent in all of this.
I have been watching BC’s private security industry for almost ten years. In 2008, I completed my doctoral dissertation, which was based on interviews with people working in the security industry and focused on the role of low-wage guards in Vancouver’s gentrifying neighbourhoods. In 2009, I co-authored Pivot’s “Security before Justice” report, which looks at the impacts of security patrols on Vancouver’s homeless and under-housed residents. In both of these studies, as well as in the Harbour Centre case, some common issues emerged.
The first major issue we have identified is that most people don’t understand what powers private security guards actually have. The short answer is that on private property, private security guards have exactly the same powers as you or I do. They can make a citizen’s arrest in very specific circumstances and they can call police if they believe a crime has been committed. They cannot issue tickets or force someone to move along. On private property, guards have some additional powers invested in them by the owner of the property as their agent, but in all cases, they must abide by the Human Rights Code. The decision to license guards is not based o any special powers that they have, but rather on a recognition that when you put someone in a uniform and pay them to be on the lookout for security breaches, there is a presumed authority granted to them. Many of the guards I spoke to describe it as “being a presence”, and that presence needs to be kept in check.
This brings up a second concern - most people who come into contact with private security guards have no idea who regulates industry or where to go to make a complaint (for those who you who don’t know it is now the Ministry of Justice, which recently replaced the Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General). Complaints can be made online if you have access to a computer, know where to look and manage to find the section of the government website that deals with private security licensing and regulation.
While the Minister of Justice is mandated to provide oversight to the security industry, no one from the Ministry ever contacted us, or our clients, to look into the concerns that were raised in the Habour Centre case. This lack of response, along with the government’s own statistics, suggests the need for much more proactive engagement with this growing industry. Despite nearly 44,000 licenses being issued to private security guards between 2008 when the Security Services Act, which regulates the industry, came into force and 2010 there is no record of a security guard losing his/her license for misconduct. The Minster also has the power to deny or refuse to grant a license under a wide range of circumstances, and can, without notice cancel or suspend a license based on factors ranging from criminal activity, to continued non-compliance with the Act. In 2010 alone, nearly 900 licenses were issued to businesses regulated under the Security Services Act, yet since theAct came into force, the government has only denied, refused to renew, or suspended two licenses.
A third concern is related to the role of the public police when they are called to an incident by private security or respond to incident involving private security. The case at Harbour Centre confirms what both of the studies I was involved with suggest, that police err on the side of supporting private security guards or turn a blind eye when guards have overstepped the bounds of their very limited authority. While the police and private security sometimes have a tense relationship, particularly where the industry threatens to divert resources out of the public system, both guards and low income people shared the belief that when in doubt the police tend to side with the security guard. In the case of Harbour Centre, VPD officers were repeatedly called to scenes where men had been arrested and showed signs of injuries. In each case, the police let the men go without pressing charges on either side. We are concerned that police are under no obligation to report these types of incidents to the Ministry of Justice in order to document trends and possible problems with particular guards, companies or sites. Security companies are also not mandated to report when one of their guards causes injury to someone.
Private security guards are not “ police” but they are actively engaged in the work of “policing” on public property, on private property and in many private spaces that most of us experience as public- like shopping malls. In order to ensure that this authority is kept in check, to protect both guards and those they interact with from unnecessary escalation, and to ensure that the human rights of marginalized people are respected, we need to start demanding more of the Ministry charged with regulating this growing industry.