Checking the Checkers 

Security Backgrounders Draw State Scrutiny

Upon learning of a Mercury news story last week about a downtown security guard's murky past, two state legislators are now planning to address shoddy background checks for armed guards who patrol downtown. The armed Securitas security guard in question was able to get state certification to work in Portland from the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) in Salem, despite having evaded a 1997 DUI-related warrant until last year ["In Security," News, Dec 6].

"The DPSST budget comes before my committee and this will be an issue that I'll address in the 2009 session," says State Representative Chip Shields.

"I think this rises to the level that the legislature should examine the statutory authority for background checks for private security guards and, perhaps, elevate them," says State Senator Vicki Walker.

Both legislators' remarks follow DPSST Director John Minnis' refusal last week to be interviewed by the Mercury following Securitas' reported suspension of armed downtown bike patrol officer Michael Joseph Anglin on Tuesday, December 4.

The DPSST says it ran Anglin's fingerprints through the FBI and state criminal databases, claiming they came up negative, which is all that the law requires for the agency to give out a license for armed security guards, under Oregon's current statutes. But the DPSST apparently did not bother to run Anglin's name through the Portland Police Bureau's database—which contained a warrant for his arrest for failure to appear on the earlier DUI charge.

"We believe the agency is neither obligated nor obliged to defend its background process," said DPSST spokesperson Jeanine Hohn last Thursday, December 6. "If your readers feel that statute should be changed in this case, they, like all Oregonians, have the legislative process available to them to make that happen."

Hohn's response to the Mercury's request for an interview with Minnis has Senator Walker fuming.

"One of the things I say pretty consistently is that you own your government," says Walker. "The DPSST is a public agency, so they do have to defend their procedures to the public.

"Ultimately, the DPSST just does what the legislature tells it to," Walker continues. "So perhaps we do need to change the legislative direction."

Shields says he's also concerned about "the explosive growth of private security" in Oregon and nationally. "How many people with appropriate backgrounds are willing to work for low wages in this kind of work?"

The DPSST certifies all private security in Oregon, including Portland's controversial downtown rent-a-cops working for Portland Patrol, Inc. (PPI)—which contracts with the Portland Business Alliance to carry out "order maintenance" in the downtown core. PPI officers have been criticized for looking too much like police officers ["Trust Me, I'm a Rent-a-Cop," Feature, May 3], but they aren't the only company blurring that line.

Another DPSST-certified private security firm, Portland Security Services, Inc. (PSS), has been based in Sellwood for the last six years, according to PSS "Sergeant" Robert Steele, reached by telephone on Monday, December 10.

PSS, according to the company's website, "is a 'hands-on' security company meaning that we are not an ordinary 'observe and report' company that simply supplies warm bodies.

"Our officers will take action when the situation demands," the website continues. "Portland Security officers are trained and equiped [sic] to make arrests, physically remove individuals from a property and engage in foot pursuits if the situation demands... Our officers are trained and equiped [sic] with the latest energy weapons such as the Taser M-18L and high-voltage shock batons."

PSS officers are not only trained to use force like police officers, they wear "blue uniforms with bright, shiny badges," says Steele. They also patrol their clients' property in retired black-and-white police cars with gold badges on the sides, and red light bars on top.

Asked whether PSS' uniforms might be easily confused with those of real police officers, and about whether driving retired cop cars with light bars attached might also contribute to the public's confusion, Steele said, "It's legal."

"As long as the lights aren't blue, it's okay," says police spokesman Brian Schmautz, citing ORS 816.280. "But if you start stopping folks, then you're impersonating a police officer."

"If people have a problem with what we do," Steele continued, "then maybe these people shouldn't be in the places where they shouldn't be."

DPSST has received five complaints against individuals employed by PSS, since 2004. Details on those complaints were not available by press time. Also, Hohn adds that motor vehicle codes govern the use of security vehicles' lighting, which is not under DPSST's jurisdiction.

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