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Mall shooting draws attention to lack of training, oversight for private security industry

Companies should go beyond 'appearance of security,' advocates say

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CEDAR RAPIDS - Private security guards working at Iowa malls, schools and corporations have no required training and no recurring background checks, despite increased threats at these facilities.

Lawmakers and the public are raising questions about licensing requirements for private security companies after an off-duty guard fatally shot a woman June 12 at Coral Ridge Mall in Coralville.

Alexander M. Kozak, 22, of North Liberty, is being held on first-degree murder charges that he targeted mall employee Andrea Farrington, 20, and gunned her down amid hundreds of shoppers.

“Most organizations want to give the appearance of security, but they don’t want the substance,” said Tom M. Conley, president and chief executive officer of the Conley Group, a private security company in Urbandale.

Only initial background checks

Iowa Code Section 80A requires private security businesses to be licensed by the Iowa Department of Public Safety (DPS).

Security company owners and other officers can’t have been convicted of a felony, aggravated misdemeanor, fraud or illegal use or possession of a firearm. They can’t be addicted to drugs or alcohol or have a violent history.

Company managers and guards must submit fingerprints for state and federal background checks.

When a security company hires a guard, the guard gets temporary authorization to work 14 days while the state does background checks. If the guard passes the screening, DPS issues a “guard card” for that employee to work for a specific company, said Ross Loder, chief of the DPS’s program services bureau.

Guard cards don’t expire and don’t require periodic background checks to make sure the guard stays out of trouble.

“It certainly creates the possibility” that a guard could be convicted of crimes without the state’s or employer’s knowledge, Loder said. “I’m not aware of any significant problems that result from the current structure.”

One reason companies may not order periodic background checks is the $40 cost, Loder said.

No training required

Iowa has no required training for employees of private security companies — which means many guards are not prepared for emergency situations, Conley said.

“In traditional guard companies, if you want to apply as a security guard, you do a 10-minute interview and you’re hired,” said Conley, a former police captain. “By 10:45 a.m. you’ve got your uniform and you’re on a post by noon.”

Iowa has been criticized for inconsistent licensing laws that require, for example, emergency medical technicians to have only 150 hours of training, while cosmetologists need 2,100 hours. The Des Moines Register’s Andie Dominick described the contradictions in editorials that made her a 2014 Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Iowa isn’t alone in the lack of required training for security guards.

“Only 10 to 12 states have some form of training requirement, and even that is minimal,” said Sandi Davies, executive director of the International Foundation for Protection Officers, a Florida-based not-for-profit that offers training programs for private security officers.

Florida requires 40 hours of professional training at a state-licensed school or training facility. New York state requires eight hours of pre-assignment training and 16 hours on-the-job training for unarmed guards without law enforcement experience.

Davies would like to see a national standard of 60 to 80 hours of third-party training.

“Back in the old days of security guards, there weren’t many threats,” Davies said. “There are more threats now, and security employees are protecting people and property in a much bigger way.”

Mall shootings, in the United States and abroad, are becoming more common. Masked gunmen shot dead more than 60 people in an upscale Kenya mall in 2013. Closer to home, Robert Hawkins, 19, killed nine people, including himself, in an Omaha mall in 2007.

Many mall security guards, including those at Coral Ridge Mall, are not armed.

“You see these mall security and you wonder what kind of security they are providing, other than a uniform and a radio,” said Rep. Clel Baudler, R-Greenfield, a retired state trooper who chairs the House Public Safety Committee.

Universal Services of America, the company that hired Kozak to provide security at Coral Ridge Mall, was first licensed in Iowa in 2013. The Santa Ana, Calif.-based business took over Coral Ridge security in April after buying Valor Security Services.

Universal spokeswoman Angela Burrell said Kozak was properly qualified to work as a security guard at Coral Ridge, but declined to answer any other questions because of the ongoing investigation of the June 12 shooting.

The company released a statement Monday saying Kozak resigned hours before the shooting, but Johnson County Attorney Janet Lyness said Kozak did not remove his possessions or tell people he had quit.

“It may be an interpretation by the employer,” she said.

Monica Nadeau, Coral Ridge Mall general manager, said the mall has a customized training program for security guards that involves different scenarios.

“Some of the measures are visible to our shoppers, like our relationship with local law enforcement; other measures are not as visible,” Nadeau told The Gazette in an email. “We do not discuss our public safety measures because by doing so would compromise our efforts. But I want to emphasize, that safety and security are our priorities every day.”

Industry challenges

Private security professionals say low wages and high turnover lead to inexperienced guards.

Iowa issued 3,070 guard cards in 2014, but voided 2,884, Loder said. The state has 7,394 active cards.

There is little national data about private security wages, Davies said, but jobs for unarmed guards often pay minimum wage and don’t include benefits.

Kozak’s application for a public defender says he made $11.85 an hour — well over the $7.25 state minimum wage.

Lack of pre-employment screening also is a problem for the industry, Conley and Davies said.

Iowa Code requires private security employees to be of “good moral character,” which gives companies reason to check a potential hire’s use of social media, Conley said.

A photo album on Kozak’s Facebook page, titled “My Toys,” contains more than a dozen images of knives, swords, a gas mask, a copy of the book, “The Anarchist Cookbook,” and other weapons. One blade is stamped with the text, “One Shot One Kill.”

Conley recently decided not to hire a young man because he had images of marijuana leaves on his Facebook.

“When you’re responsible for other people, you have to operate at a higher level,” Conley said.

Lax regulation

Iowa’s licensing system, as defined by Iowa Code, relies on internal policing.

For example, Iowa erroneously canceled Kozak’s guard card Jan. 13 when Valor, the previous Coral Ridge security provider, turned in a list of 20 employees no longer on the payroll, Loder said. He doesn’t know whether the company erred in listing Kozak’s card for cancellation or if the state goofed.

Either way, Kozak worked at the mall without certification for four months until Universal asked for a new guard card in May.

Sen. Bob Dvorsky, D-Coralville, said the private security profession won’t improve without higher wages and more training. He wants the Iowa Legislature to review licensing requirements.

“They should have some evidence of training and know what they’re doing,” he said. “Even if they’re unarmed, they still have a lot of authority.”

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