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Are Armed Security Guards the Answer to Store Violence?

The surge in violent and aggressive behavior in retail stores may be enough for some retailers—even those that thought they would never entertain the idea—to consider deploying armed security officers to retail locations.

Some retail establishments, like jewelry stores, often deploy an armed officer; others may deploy armed officers in select high-crime areas. In retail cannabis stores, “armed guards were seen as a useful deterrent to robberies in dispensaries where they were used,” according to a study published in 2021 in the Journal of Social Change. Last holiday season, several big retailers announced plans to beef up security to protect shoppers and employees, to include armed officers for a visual deterrent to criminal activity and violence.

The case for armed officers seems bolstered by recent events, such as the rampage shooting in May at a Buffalo supermarket that left 10 dead. Electronic security systems, video surveillance, and unarmed security officers can shorten police response times and provide situational awareness and evidence, but against an armed intruder unafraid of being captured or killed, they don’t really offer much in the way of prevention.

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According to a current marketing pitch from one private security firm, there is currently a noticeable increase in armed security. “More retail establishments are deciding to protect their employees and inventory with armed security, especially the luxury retail businesses that have become targets of violent robberies recently,” it says. The firm offered no data to support the assertion, but it doesn’t sound entirely implausible either.

Some time ago, when an armed security officer helped to foil an armed robbery at a movie theater in Madison, Wisconsin, local press said it evidenced a changing of the guard. “The day of the night watchman, with no weapon, is giving way to a more highly trained, armed security officer,” said a 27 News reporter.

The problem, however, is that “highly trained” and “armed” are not always synonymous.

Due Diligence Required

In December 2021, a supermarket chain in the Midwest announced it was making hires to new security teams with the suggestion that many would be armed. Most officers would have a law enforcement background, be specifically trained to defuse situations, and they would undergo extensive training designed by company retail security leaders. But the company also noted that their deployment would begin in stores that use contract security officers—and while armed contract officers are often highly trained, it is a fact that needs strict verification.

State statutory requirements for the training of private security who carry firearms still vary widely, including on requirements such as classroom training, written exams, training in criminal and civil liability, refresher training requirements, and hours of required training.

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Some past research studies have concluded that training for armed private security agents “is notably lacking,” and industry surveys have shown that organizations contracting for armed security officers rate contract security firms comparatively poor in meeting specialized training standards and needs. In short, just because a contract security officer is licensed to carry a firearm does not mean the client company will be comfortable with the level of training he or she has received.

Data has also hinted at the problematic result of insufficient training. One study last decade examined several years of data from the state of Florida regarding weapon discharges, which must be reported to the state’s licensing authority any time a private security officer fires a weapon. That study found that almost half the time that contract officers in the state shot their guns it was by mistake.

In roughly 50 percent of incidents, security officers fired their weapon because of a confrontation, according to data analysis of state reports. But nearly as many discharges “were accidental or irresponsible, even reckless.” More than five percent of all discharge reports detailed incidents in which officers protecting retail establishments fired warning shots to get shoplifting suspects to stop or shot at shoplifters’ cars as they fled store parking lots. That has certainly changed since the time of the study, as retailers have altered policies regarding the interception of shoplifting subjects, but it is a data point worth remembering.

Poor judgment isn’t the only potential problem. The most disconcerting statistic revealed by the analysis was the frequency with which an armed contract security officer’s firearm “just went off.” Accidents, defined as the negligent discharge of a firearm, accounted for over one-third of all discharges, which strongly suggests a weakness in firearms training, according to the study’s author. Nearly half of accidental discharges occurred during loading/unloading—a clear indication of insufficient training.

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Accidental discharges by police officers are rare by comparison. One jurisdiction in California with 800 police deputies had zero such incidents over a five-year period, for example. Such a disparity is a likely result of the difference in training requirements for police versus private security, and while the gap has narrowed in many jurisdictions, minimally required standards may be insufficient to ensure safe use and good judgment by armed private security officers.

Because a state license may not provide a guarantee of truly adequate training, retail organizations must satisfy for themselves that officers guarding their properties have received sufficient instruction. Considering the potential harm armed officers can do, use of force training is critical. Officers should undergo a significant amount of live scenario training to test their response to different levels of conflict with a trained instructor. This is critical to get officers practiced in using the least deadly security tool that can resolve the situation. Too often, when a gun is available, officers will use it to resolve a conflict instead of a tool that is more appropriate for the situation, such as verbal de-escalation, handcuffs, baton, pepper spray, and so on.

Companies may also want to examine if officers have undergone live-fire scenarios, which involve instructors acting out a scenario that officers are likely to encounter, which is then projected onto a screen at a firing range; cover drills, which add movement and distractions to (typically static) target shooting drills; and weapons retention training, which teaches officers how to block efforts by individuals to grab away their weapon.

Finally, annual re-training is critical to prevent accidents involving weapons. Some states require three times the amount of re-training for armed private security officers as others do.

Each company must weigh for itself the pros and cons for having an armed security presence—an assessment that needs to be periodically re-visited. Besides the fact that armed officers cost more to deploy and other reasons to tread cautiously, organizations contracting for armed security officers need to investigate the training those officers receive.

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