BC's private security laws need reform

On October 6, 2012, a shopper used his cellphone to film an incident involving three undercover private security guards employed by Genesis Security and a wheelchair-bound man inside Pacific Centre mall in Vancouver. The video shows one guard swearing and yelling at the one-legged shoplifting suspect before throwing from his motorized chair as the other two guards looked on. 

After the video went public, the Security Programs Division of the Ministry of Justice, which is tasked with regulating the private security industry, launched an investigation. Last week, the provincial regulator released their findings. The regulator determined that the guard acted with unnecessary force and used profanity contrary to the Security Services Regulation. The guard has received $330 in fines, and a two-month suspension with a condition that he re-certify his use of force training before he can reapply for a license. The Vancouver Police Department also investigated the incident, but as of last week there had been no charges approved by the Crown against either the guard or the suspected shoplifter.  This case is one of the first where the provincial regulator has spoken publicly about enforcement action against a private security guard. We believe this is a step in the right direction, but at a systemic level, there is a lot more work to be done.

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There are now more than 20,000 licensed security guards in B.C. (more than twice the number of public police officers), and the implications of the privatization of policing, particularly for low-income people, are rarely discussed.  The provincial Security Services Act, which regulates the industry, was re-written in 2008 to reflect the growing size and scope of the industry. Since then, more guards, including those who are employed directly by bars or stores rather than by contract security companies, now fall within the licensing scheme. This move toward greater accountability was offset by changes that reduced restrictions on guards and companies and a failure to address ongoing concerns about monitoring, transparency and accountability.

The question of whether private security guards have a role at all on public space remains a live one, however, even in the absence of a ban on private, for-profit, security patrols on public streets, we believe that there are simple legislative and regulatory changes that would make the private security industry much more accountable:

•    Get explicit about the (limited) powers of guards
Private security guards are employed by private companies and contracted by private citizens, corporations and public entities to provide security services on both public and private property, as well as on property that most people experience as public like shopping malls and libraries. Private security guards are not peace officers and have no powers beyond those afforded to regular citizens when they are on public property, yet they wear uniforms and drive marked cars, which invest them with a “presumed authority” that is routinely used to move people along on public space. When people engage with security guards they rarely understand what powers guards have, who is paying for them, or where to go to complain if they have a bad experience. Some of the most high profile private security cases in Vancouver have involved malls, but another troubling aspect of the expansion of the private security industry is the behaviour of guards who patrol public space. Nowhere is this issue more important than in the Downtown Eastside, where street-based enforcement practices by the police, which have been identified as having a negative impact on sex workers and other marginalized women, and are now being augmented or replaced by private patrols.

The Security Services Act and related regulations need to be amended to explicitly lay out the limits on the powers of security guards. This should include a directive that security workers must never state or imply that they have the power to remove or ban individuals from public property, issue tickets, seize or dispose of personal property or press criminal charges.  The regulations should also clearly state that security workers must never use force in the course of their duties except to protect themselves or someone else from immediate harm as per sections 34-37 of the Criminal Code of Canada, and that failure to comply with these limits or a misrepresentation of powers will result in a loss of licensing.  

•    Improve record-keeping and reporting
Not all cases involving use of force or detention by security guards are caught on camera or released to the media.  We represented five men who had negative interactions with private security at Harbour Centre, where most of the incidents involving our clients took place in a locked stairwell out of view of the public and of mall security cameras. While detention, and even use of force, may sometimes be justified, it is critical that all of these events are documented and reported. The regulator (and the police) must have the capacity to investigate individual incidents even when no formal complaint has been made, and to look at patterns of interaction and behaviour among particular guards, companies or work sites.

An important way to increase accountability within the industry would be to make it mandatory for companies to report to the Ministry of Justice any instances where guards use force or injure members of the public, similar to the reporting required of police. Relevant regulations should also be amended to require all companies to submit monthly reports tracking use of force, detentions, calls to police and removals from property to be filed with the registrar. The registrar should compile an annual report based on aggregate data outlining the prevalence of use of force, incidents involving canines, use of restraints and detention by licensed security guards and make that report available to the public.

•    Increase transparency and accountability
Security guards cannot remove or ban people from public property, but they do routinely remove individuals or issue verbal “bans” in relation to private properties they are hired to patrol, such as shopping malls.  Currently, there is very little accountability when these “bans” are issued, with potential human rights implications. Companies should be required to maintain records of:
•    The time and date of any removal or ban
•    The of reasons for removal or ban
•    The property in question
•    The conditions under which the person can return to the property

Any removal and the reasons for those removals should be included in monthly reporting to the registrar. This information should also be provided to the subject of the removal along with information about how to dispute the ban, make a complaint to the registrar, and relevant human rights code provisions.

•    Place the onus on guards, companies and clients to justify enhanced services
With supplemental training guards can be licensed to handle a dog or to carry restraints (handcuffs) in the course of their work. The ability to carry handcuffs was new in the 2008 legislation. Once guards are certified, it is up to their company and their clients to determine when these enhanced services should be deployed. We believe that those regulations should be amended to give more authority to the registrar to determine whether the use of dogs or restraints is warranted in a given circumstance. For example, the registrar might determine that having guards carry restraints is warranted at a large event with a liquor license, or that it is reasonable for a dog to accompany a guard patrolling a large vacant property alone, however the onus should be on the company to make the case for the use of these measures. Security guards engaged in routine patrols of public space or shopping malls should not be granted authorization to carry restraint devices or work with a dog.

•    Hold guards and companies to account
When the Pacific Centre mall case hit the media in October, the company in question took immediate action, firing one guard and suspending two others. Given the low barriers to entry and high employee turnover in the security industry, it is critical to ensure that the companies charged with hiring and supervising guards are held to account for the actions of their employees. Terminating an employee once a story goes public should not be sufficient to avoid scrutiny or consequences.  When an individual guard is implicated in serious wrongdoing, it is critical that there is not only an investigation into the conduct of the guard, but also but into the company that is responsible for the hiring and supervision of that guard. This should include investigations into organizational culture, internal training and supervisory practices within the company.  The registrar should be forceful in exercising its power to suspend licenses, not only of individual guards, but also of the companies that employ them, including temporary suspensions during the course of investigations where there are allegations of substantial misconduct.