citizen safety

Private guards to protect the public

The government plans to give security personnel some of the same functions as the police But the idea is causing concern among workers in the sector

Private security guards at work in Barcelona. Employees in the sector may soon be policing public events.
Private security guards at work in Barcelona. Employees in the sector may soon be policing public events.J. SÁNCHEZ

"A security guard is neither one thing nor the other. My job is to run after somebody who has stolen something from a store, but I don't want to get involved in what is going on in the street," says Pedro (not his real name), a security guard who works in a shop in the center of Madrid. He is concerned about the news that the government wants to increase the policing powers of private security firms, giving them the right to arrest people or require them to identify themselves. That would mean he could be asked to patrol public events, for example. And he doesn't like the sound of that idea at all.

On December 11, Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz presented a draft bill that would extend the powers of security guards, who could be assigned to guard ATM machines or patrol shopping areas, giving them the right to make arrests at "events of significant social importance that are carried out in public thoroughfares or spaces."

The proposals are backed by the Catalan and Basque nationalist parties, the CiU and PNV, respectively, but have angered the opposition Socialist Party. Many security guards say that they are uncomfortable about the proposals, arguing that the law is vague and that they are unclear how it would protect them, and pointing out that they are not properly trained to carry out such duties.

Private staff would be able to make arrests at "events of social importance"

"The Interior Ministry must guarantee that security guards are able to carry out any requirements delegated to them, and that means more training," says José Rafael Centeno, of labor union UGT. "Security guards come in for a lot of flak and we don't deserve it. If we have been good enough to work as bodyguards for politicians in the Basque Country and Navarre for the last 30 years, then we are able to do just about any other job, but we need the right training first."

The proposed law mentions training, pointing the way to programs within universities or technical colleges. But it is short on details, which has prompted fears among security staff that they may be called on to carry out policing, but without the proper means to do so.

"We have a long way to go in terms of dealing with the public. Searching somebody in a private area like a store is not the same as in the street," says Nelo Maldonado, a security advisor for the CCOO labor union who also teaches security guards.

Searching somebody in a private area like a store is not the same as in the street"

Jaime Sanz de Bremond, a criminal lawyer, points to the investigation currently underway into six Catalan police officers accused of injuring demonstrators earlier this year in Barcelona. "Police officers undergo rigorous and lengthy training, but that doesn't mean that there haven't been cases of abuse on some occasions," he explains.

Roser Martínez, a lecturer in Administrative Law at the Autonomous University of Barcelona, and author of a book comparing gun legislation in the United States and Europe, warns that the proposed law actually reduces the training required by armed private security guards: 78 percent of the 82,150 men and women working in the sector carry guns. "They are currently required to undergo two gun courses each year, while the new law only refers to training carried out by gun instructors. It does not specify what qualifications arms instructors must have, nor how much drill security guards would be required to undergo, nor how many shots they would be required to fire," he says.

Requirements for joining the police

- Over the age of 18.

- Spanish nationality.

- High school diploma.

- At least 1.65 meters tall (men), or 1.6 meters (women).

- Have no criminal record, or have been banned from holding public office

- Full driving license

- Be prepared to carry arms, and in which case, be prepared to use them, and make a formal statement to this effect.

- Pass the national police exams based on physical, psychological, medical, and knowledge of criminal and police procedure.

- Two years of training. The first is at the National Police College in Ávila. After passing out there, officers are then assigned to one year at a police station house for further on-the-job training.

Martínez adds that the new law would not necessarily require security guards to return their weapon to their firm's offices at the end of each shift. Gun licenses are issued to the security firm, not to individual guards, meaning that employees must hand in their weapon when they finish work. The new law would allow them to leave their gun in a hotel safe, for example, if they had been assigned to work at that hotel for a period of a week or more.

Pedro, the aforementioned security guard, is typical of many working in the sector. In his forties, he used to work as a mechanic, and was then unemployed for a number of years. After working for the state railway company RENFE, he found more stable work in security, but says that he earns less than 1,000 euros a month. Many of his colleagues, meanwhile, come from industries in decline, such as construction.

Growing numbers of security guards are school leavers with few qualifications who see a future in the sector, and intend to make a career of it. Some hope to be promoted to management positions, or overseeing computerized surveillance systems, or fire protection. But Juan Carlos Rodríguez, studies coordinator at Abalar, a private college that trains around 700 security guards a year, says that very few of his students have any sense of vocation. "The idea that these guys are frustrated police officers, for example, is nonsense. What we do see are guys training to be police officers also training to do private security work so that they can make a living while they complete their studies. The majority of those who pass our exams are aged over 24, have graduated from high school, and have a sense of doing something for the public good. Eighteen-year-olds who think they are Dirty Harry, and can barely read or write, tend to get filtered out during the training process," he explains.

The requirements for sitting the police entry exam and that for security guards are practically the same: applicants must be aged 18 years or over, have no criminal record, and must have completed secondary education. Security guards must be European Union nationals, while only those with Spanish nationality can opt to join the police. The new legislation would allow non-EU nationals to become security guards, as long as their country of origin has a bilateral convention in this regard.

The ones who think they're Dirty Harry tend to get filtered out in training"

After sitting an exam set by the Interior Ministry - following some 180 hours of basic training - would-be security guards must undergo at least 20 hours ongoing training a year once they start work. They must pass personal defense courses, as well as firearms use, along with exams in law, psychology and sociology.

Police officers spend two years in training before sitting an entry exam: one year at the National Police Academy in Ávila, and a year working in a police station house.

The difference in training is reflected in the pay and working conditions of the two professions. Unarmed security guards earn 1,086 euros a month, before tax. An entry-level police officer's starting pay is between 1,400 and 1,500 euros a month, depending on where he or she is working, among other factors. Their pay will rise incrementally over the years, based on promotion.

Requirements for security guards

- Aged between 18 and 54.

- EU citizen. The new law would admit applicants from non-EU countries that have private security agreements with Spain.

- High school diploma.

- No criminal record.

- Not have been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces or any other national security body.

- Not have been charged with a serious offense in the last four years, nor have any convictions for offenses relating to invasion of privacy or breaches of security in the previous five years.

- Pass a series of Interior Ministry aptitude tests. Candidates must also pass an exam after attending 180 hours of training over the course of six weeks at an authorized center. The minimum pass is 50 percent. Applicants must also pass a physical exam.

"This is like getting nurses to do operations because there aren't enough doctors and the waiting lists are getting longer," says José María Benito, a spokesman for the SUP police labor union. Aside from a way to save money, he says that the proposals make little sense, because the tasks that security guards would be undertaking are already covered by the police.

The security industry has been hard hit by the crisis, losing around 20 percent of its business since 2008. That said, Aproser, the body that represents the 12 largest security firms, doubts that the government's efforts will do much to help it. Over the same period, the number of security guards has fallen, even though more people than ever are applying to join the profession. The Interior Ministry admits that the law would help companies whose turnover has been hit, for example, by the end of the violence in the Basque Country.

Cooperation between private security firms and the police is common in airports and ministries. Twenty-one of Spain's prisons have been partially staffed by private security guards since May as part of a pilot program. Security company guards now patrol some beaches and gated communities, as well as overseeing, for example, the Three Kings processions that take place throughout the country on January 6. That said, security guards are only permitted to act within clearly defined areas.

As a result of this cooperation, the number of false alarms has fallen by around 90 percent, says Benito. "Security firms install their alarm systems and they make money out of them, but it's still down to us to answer emergencies or suspected break-ins," he says. The new legislation aims to further cooperation between the police and private security firms, allowing for the sharing of information in real time. "The idea is to facilitate information to improve public safety and security, but it won't turn security guards into police officers," says Aproser's secretary general, Eduardo Cobas.

Cobas says that greater cooperation between private security firms and the police has already produced results, citing the case of a 12-year-old adopted Chinese girl, Asunta Basterra, who died from an overdose of tranquilizers. Her mother reported the girl's disappearance, but after her story was contradicted by security camera footage, she became a suspect in the young girl's murder.

The security industry has lost around 20 percent of its business since 2008

The Interior Ministry insists that security guards would always work under police supervision, and that the change to the law is simply a reflection of the reality on the ground. But Sanz de Bremond says that nevertheless, extending private security firms' remit is a major step. "The idea is to instill in the public's mind that the security guards are part of the broader security apparatus, and are equivalent to police officers. The outcome of this is that they will be working in public areas and thus be put in situations where they may be the first on the scene of a possible crime, subsequently contributing to the outcome of situations," he says.

Sanz de Bremond says that the law is "unnecessary" thanks to the existing legislation, dating back to 1992, whereby any member of the public who suspects that a crime is being committed should immediately contact the police, with arrests only possible by a police officer. "A security guard in a department store is already acting within the remit of the law - there is no need to introduce further legislation," he says. "They cannot be compared to the police, but neither are they just an ordinary member of the public," says Cobas, who believes that the current law leaves security guards exposed in certain situations.

The draft bill puts security agents on the same level as the police when they are working alongside officers and are injured, reflecting a long-standing demand of security guards. "This is all in the realm of the conceptual," counters Sanz de Bremond. "It could lead to situations where security guards justify aggression, claiming that they have been attacked first."

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