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Is "Observe and Report" Good Policy?

​A TEENAGE GIRL was assaulted and robbed earlier this year in a Seattle King County Metro transit tunnel by a group of other teenagers and young adult males. Unarmed contract security guards were on the scene, but they did not physically or verbally intervene to stop the attack. Instead, they called the authorities. The incident resulted in a barrage of criticism being leveled at the guards, the guard service provider, and the transit system’s management.

The incident revealed how little the public understands about the private security officer practice of “observe and report.” It also begs the question: Should the industry reevaluate whether this is the right approach?

The order to observe and report is, of course, founded on the principle that security officers are generally not police, they are often not armed, and they do not have law enforcement powers. “The public, even lawyers, sometimes tend to confuse security officers with police officers,” says Richard D. Sem, CPP, of Sem Security Management.

Some states have laws that deputize private security officers in certain situations or give them detention or police power, says Rick McCann, executive director of Private Officer International. However, most contract security guards do not carry weapons, and many do not have any more law enforcement authority than any other private citizen. Hiring companies are acutely aware of the difference, and generally instruct officers not to take action, because the employer worries about the legal liability should the officer intervene and cause harm to a suspect, victim, or bystander.

Private security officers, as a result, end up being put in a no-win situation. If guards do not intervene in a situation, as in the Seattle case, they may open themselves and their clients up to negligence lawsuits from the victim or the clients, says David Nagle, an employment lawyer and partner at Jackson Lewis LLP. If guards do intervene, they may be criminally charged for excessive use of force or once again, sued for negligence. Many such cases are brought yearly. But due to insurance coverage, the cases are often settled out of court, says Nagle. There have also been cases where guards who intervened were fired for disobeying the “observe and report” directive, despite a positive outcome.

Torrence Brownyard, president of W.H. Brownyard Corp., which provides insurance for guard companies, says observe-and-report guards cost less because they are not expected to do as much and, thus, are not as highly trained. He’s seen a trend toward using observe-and-report guards lately due to Fortune 500 companies cutting their budgets.

In addition to the training and hiring costs being lower, the insurance costs and liabilities are lower if the guards are unable to become involved in altercations, as opposed to when they can intervene, according to Brownyard.

At least, that’s the theory, though when incidents occur and guards do not intervene, as in the Seattle case, the fallout can be costly in dollars and reputation. In fact, as the Seattle case shows, “observe and report” fails on every level in some circumstances. It fails to protect the patrons from harm, presumably part of the purposes of paying for private security services; it fails to protect the client company from reputational harm and litigation; and it fails to protect the guard service provider from charges as well.

Is there an alternative? There is a middle choice between having guards be sworn law enforcement officers and having them do nothing except observe and report. The officers can be directed “to intervene to the degree of their training and to the degree that is going to prevent somebody from being harmed,” McCann says.

But drawing up post orders for how to implement this middle ground may be a challenge. If it is determined that the guards are able to physically intervene in a situation, then there is a question as to when to get involved. For example, might the guards break up a fight between young girls but not grown men, because there is a greater chance of injury with the latter?

“What does intervention mean?” asks Pat Murphy, president of LPT Security Consulting. “Does that mean use my verbal commands, ‘Stop what you’re doing; I’m calling the police?’ If they’re heavily involved in a big fight, that’s probably not going to do much for them. Does that mean you jump in the fray and physically try to remove them?”

Some options in addition to calling the authorities are to train officers on verbal de-escalation. Additionally, some officers actually have restraint powers, such as many healthcare security guards, says Sem.

If guards are given the ability to use force, they must determine what type of force to use in any given situation. Guards must also gauge how much force to use, as well as how to avoid harming innocent bystanders. The contractor should get on the same page with the client about what sort of force is warranted.

Training is the key to ensuring that guards can handle duties beyond observe and report if they are charged with them, and the individuals interviewed for this article agree that most guards do not receive enough training.

McCann thinks security associations should do more to improve and increase training. “What really needs to happen in this industry is that there needs to be one, across-the-board, mandate of training required across the states. But that’s going to take an act of Congress really to get that done,” says McCann.