Some retail establishments are surely re-examining protection options after a string of flash mobs and smash-and-grab attacks accompanied the start of the holiday shopping season. Beyond direct losses, property damage, and shock to store personnel, media interviews with consumers suggest the attacks have dampened the desire for in-store shopping for some people.
The brazen attacks—many captured on video and broadcast widely—have highlighted the limitations of alarms, cameras, and glass cases. In some, associates are seen watching helplessly as gangs of masked thieves grab expensive bags or other items off store shelves, or smash glass to get at expensive jewelry or electronics.
The attacks suggest a burgeoning belief that rather than trying to commit theft undetected, it’s easier to attack stores directly, en masse, and to rely on a quick getaway. That stores have tended to minimize apprehensions in favor of electronic security solutions has surely catalyzed that perception.
Retailers need help from local law enforcement to stop the scourge, and many cities have promised to beef up their presence in at-risk shopping districts. But some retailers may also be wondering if visible security personnel are now needed to provide deterrence. If so, is it smarter to use direct hires, contract officers, or off-duty police?
There is no universally correct answer to that question, of course, but there is a list of considerations that experts advise every organization to weigh (see them in the sidebar below this article).
The debate on in-house staff versus contract officers has a long history and continues to divide executives because of valid arguments for both options. Using contract staff allows more flexibility in staffing levels, is often less expensive, and can leverage the expertise of a firm whose core business is security. But companies also have less direct control over contract security officers, who may have less loyalty and result in greater turnover, and they may not be a good fit with the culture of an organization.
There is also conflicting evidence on several points. While using contract security officers is generally regarded as a more cost-effective solution, a study by ASIS International found that some security executives say they’ve saved money by switching away from contract officers and using more direct hires, for example.
Off-duty law enforcement (ODLE) is another potentially good option with its own set of issues. Cost is a concern and one security consultant we interviewed said that while they may know their legal authority as law enforcement, it’s different from private security—and he’s repeatedly seen police miss the distinction and land employers in court. “Companies don’t provide them any training in private security, and they act like cops, and most cops—and I’ve been one— expect someone to ask ‘how high’ when they tell them to jump. They don’t react as well [as private security] when individuals ask, ‘why should I?'”
It’s important to include off-duty police officers in loss prevention training, according to security consultant Chris McGoey. “You can’t assume that they understand the law or will act appropriately and fairly towards all customers, especially in the retail setting.” He noted that when Barneys faced accusations of racial profiling in 2013 after the detention of two African American customers, an internal review concluded that NYPD officers were to blame and that no store employee had engaged in racial profiling.
Despite the potential downsides, Eddie Sorrells, general counsel and COO for DSI Security Services, said in a recent industry webinar that they can give retailers what they’re looking for. “When it comes to a deterrent effect, off-duty police are certainly a greater deterrent, especially with their patrol car. And a huge benefit to using off-duty officers is to leverage their ability to liaison with local law enforcement,” said Sorrells.
Another issue is how retailers want to employ them: whether they prefer to reach out directly to ODLE or hire them through a security contractor. “There is a legal landscape for using off-duty police. If you anticipate using them, you must figure out how it can work contractually,” said Andy Hughes, Law Enforcement Liaison for FirstGuard LLC, who co-presented with Sorrells.
ODLE may be particularly valuable in certain cases, such as if a gang were to strike a store just a few hours before opening. The ability to immediately deploy a uniformed officer to the scene allows it to quickly secure the location, provides professional security coverage, and may help to ease employees’ peace of mind as stores push to reopen. Such a deployment can demonstrate a store’s commitment to employee safety and provide peace of mind to store associates, noted one retailer.
ODLE is also a useful tool to disrupt criminal gangs if they repeatedly strike in a particular city, according to one retailer whose stores were being hit in Texas. It considered the option of hiring overnight security officers to protect every store location in the area, but the number of person-hours needed to protect its many stores was judged too costly.
Instead, the retailer hired ODLE through its security firm for burglary suppression details. About every other day, ODLE positioned themselves outside select at-risk stores, informed by crime trend analysis and occasionally through intelligence from store managers and reports of seeing suspicious individuals.
Mostly, the off-duty officers provided visible deterrence in marked patrol cars, but they also conducted covert surveillance. During one such occasion, they caught three burglars in the act and apprehended them, news of which put a quick end to the string of burglaries. For more than a month, the retailer had seen one of its stores in the city victimized every two or three nights, but it quickly dropped to zero after the intervention.
Considerations in the Choice of Contract Officers vs. Direct Hires
Depending on an organization’s security needs and resources, it may be advantageous to contract for officers from a security firm. There are many instances, however, when it makes more sense to hire security staff directly as employees and operate a proprietary security force. Occasionally, organizations do both. Organizations should examine the issues below for insight into which option may be a better fit, advise experts.
- Undertake an objective and detailed examination of the core competencies of the company’s security department—how it does things and how its processes may be lacking—to provide a reliable foundation upon which to make the decision whether to outsource.
- Examine whether the use of a contract security firm can provide a competitive advantage for the company, by allowing it to concentrate on the company’s core issues while leaving security to those for whom it is their principal business.
- Consider how in-house capabilities—training, background investigations, a drug testing program—compare to those of outside security vendors.
- Complete a detailed cost analysis of current security personnel expenses to use as the basis for cost comparison. Be sure to include in the accounting all direct and indirect expenses related to in-house staff, such as training, uniforms, professional organization participation, payroll administration, and all other associated expenses.
- Don’t assume that using contract security officers is a cheaper solution than hiring officers directly. Some companies report saving money by reducing reliance on contract security staff.
- Consider the risk that using external security staff could pose to internal company information and, if a decision is made to outsource, address information exposure to the extent necessary/possible.
- Evaluate whether the organization’s current management culture and its communication processes and capabilities would be supportive of a contract security arrangement.
- Consider whether the organization is comfortable with the loss of direct control that is inherent in the use of contract officers.
- Evaluate whether there are sufficient skills in-house to both initiate and manage the outsourcing process, including the evaluation of security firms, negotiation of the outsourcing contract, and ongoing contract/vendor management.
- Recognize that reliance on contract security may lead to further reductions in internal security expertise and skills, which may enhance future reliance on contract security firms.
- Take stock of the possible negative consequences associated with the use of contract security officers, including higher turnover and a security force that is less loyal to the company and lacks appreciation for the company’s culture and priorities.
- Consider the management obstacles associated with the use of contract security staff, such as difficulty in monitoring and evaluating officer performance, and address these if the organization decides to use contract officers.
- Be careful that the desire to use contract security officers does not blind the organization to hidden costs and charges often associated with contract security arrangements.
- Enlist legal counsel to examine liability issues surrounding the use of a security firm so that the company understands how its risk of security lawsuits is—and is not—affected by using contract officers.
- Examine whether contracting with a security firm may help the company respond to shifts in demand for security staffing, such as covering staffing needs for special events, temporary locations, and in response to changes in threat.