An armed security guard stands next to the cable car fare kiosk at Powell and Market streets in San Francisco. (Lea Suzuki/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images)
In 2004, when California first started regulating security-guard licenses more extensively, the nation was at war and the memory of 9/11 was fresh.
It made sense, then, that state leaders decided to dedicate four hours of the 40-hour course to handling threats related to weapons of mass destruction and other forms of terrorism.
Nearly 20 years later, some in the industry say that part of the training is looking outdated — especially as businesses around the state increasingly rely on private security guards to protect their stores not from terror threats, but from shoplifters.
In late April, that reliance came to a tragic end when a security guard at a San Francisco Walgreens store near Union Square shot and killed Banko Brown, a man accused of shoplifting about $14 worth of merchandise, including a box of cereal.
Like the rest of the more than 301,000 licensed security guards in California, Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony, the guard at Walgreens, had been required to watch four hours of training videos focused on WMDs — but not a single minute on appropriate use of force and deescalation techniques.
“To be honest with you, from 2004 to now, there’s not been a security officer in the state of California that’s found any weapons of mass destruction,” said David Chandler, president of the California Association of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards and Associates, or CALSAGA.
“I think we’re teaching the wrong subject for four hours and not teaching the security guards how to get along with people and how to protect people’s rights,” he added.
The Walgreens killing of Banko Brown isn’t the first time in recent years that an altercation with a security guard in California has resulted in someone’s death. In 2019, a man caught trespassing in the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento ended up on life support and later died after a security guard allegedly kneeled on his neck for more than four minutes.
That incident took on new significance after George Floyd was murdered in a similar manner the following year by a Minneapolis police officer, said Democratic state Assemblymember Chris Holden, from Pasadena.
“It just seemed to be so senseless,” Holden said of the death of Mario Matthews, who was found to have had methamphetamine in his system when he entered the arena around 3:30 a.m. and ran around the court pretending to dribble a basketball.
“We realized that these private security guards, who also carry a baton and a gun, are not trained to intervene in those kinds of situations at all,” he said. “They are not taught deescalation techniques. They are not taught how to use objectively reasonable force or understand implicit and explicit cultural training.”
Matthews’ death prompted Holden to introduce legislation in 2021 updating the training requirements for security guards. The law, which took effect in January, mandates eight hours of training in “the exercise of the appropriate use of force.”
“The real emphasis is making sure that these private security officers are getting the appropriate training that they need to hopefully put them in a better position to use better judgment in how to address members of the public,” Holden said. “Obviously there’s a responsibility to address criminal behavior.”
But when $14 leads to a loss of life, he said, “we’ve got to do better.”
Holden’s bill also requires security companies to report within seven days any physical altercation between their guards and the public that results in an injury requiring medical attention, and any force used by a guard while on duty.
But implementing the law’s training requirement is what’s needed most urgently, said policing expert LaDoris Cordell, a retired judge who worked as San José’s independent police auditor for five years.
“I’d made certain assumptions about private security guards, because they are basically doing police work — and I was stunned to find out that there is no requirement that they be trained in the use of force,” she said.
Cordell praised the specificity of Holden’s legislation for spelling out in detail what the training needs to cover — including the limitations, responsibilities and ethics involved in making a citizen’s arrest, restrictions on searches and seizures, and criminal and civil liabilities.
One Bay Area security guard said the lack of any current use-of-force training — combined with evolving guidance from the security companies themselves — leaves both the public and security guards at greater risk of unnecessary altercations.
“I make it very clear to people: ‘No, I’m security, I’m not police.’ I don’t want to be police. But, we do need more training because a lot of people look at us as police,” said the guard, who has worked in the field for two years, and didn’t want to use his name because his employer doesn’t allow their guards to speak to the press. “You have to have training, you have to have accountability.”
He also noted that guards, who typically start out making less than $25 an hour, are putting themselves at personal legal risk when they engage physically with someone, regardless of what their employer has advised them to do. For example, even though the district attorney is not filing criminal charges against Anthony, the guard at Walgreens who shot Brown, he is still being sued by Brown’s family. A police officer in a similar situation generally couldn’t be sued as an individual.
Banko Brown Coverage
Chandler, of CALSAGA, agreed. He said his group supported Holden’s legislation in part because security guards are now being asked to do more than ever before — and are encountering far different responses from the public.
“The unhoused community — they’re pushing back now,” he said. “Years ago, they would find somebody who’s unhoused, they would say you need to move along. … Now, these guys are fighting back. They’re attacking guards. They’re getting into physical altercations with guards. So the guards really need training on deescalation tactics and getting along with people, especially people with mental issues.”
Chandler said responsibility also lies with the security firms that hire the guards, to make clear that human life is more important than property. The security firm that employed Anthony, Kingdom Group Protective Services, had changed its policies (PDF) just weeks before Brown’s shooting, instructing its guards to be more hands-on when witnessing someone trying to steal merchandise.
With that kind of policy, said Chandler, “you’re asking for a fight. You’re looking for a fight.”
“All these major companies have insurance,” he added. “You know, if you’re losing so much money that you can’t afford to be in business, well, then guess what? You can’t be in business.”
Cordell, the retired judge, agreed, noting that huge companies like Walgreens and the security firms are asking low-paid workers to take the risk — and fall — for them.
“We’re living in a society where the distance between the haves and the have-nots is getting wider and wider and wider and greater and greater,” she said. “We have this big corporation that nobody’s really looking at and saying, ‘What are you doing about this issue?’ [They know] full well that the folks that they’re bringing in are not well-trained. They’re not well-paid.”
And now, Cordell said, two lives are ruined.
“This security guard — he’s going to be messed up for the rest of his life. The family of this young man [Brown], I mean, he’s gone,” she said. “Everybody’s messed up. And yet you have the company sitting back and nobody’s kind of saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, what’s your responsibility in all of this stuff?’”
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