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To Arm or Not to Arm?

Steve Baker, CPP, PCI, PSP, is president of VTI Associates, a security consulting firm that provides use-of-force training and litigation services. He is also a certified instructor for security officer firearms training in the states of Nevada and Arizona. Baker talks with Security Management about the subject of arming guards and how companies can evaluate what options are best for them. 


Q. What are some of the considerations businesses should weigh when deciding whether or not to arm guards?  

A. Companies should first ask whether there is a business need. What is the business trying to protect? What’s the threat for the facility, the nature of the business, assets that need protecting, hours of operation? Some places at different times of day may have different issues. For example, a gas station located near a busy highway may want an armed guard at night.  

Then they have to consider, will it be 100 percent arming, or is there going to be a mix of armed and unarmed personnel? And then, to break that down even further, what level of arming are we going to do—are we going to have it restricted to supervisors and managers only, or all officers?  

We also have to talk about the financial impact of screening, hiring, and retaining the employees; also training and equipping them. There’s the factor of law enforcement response time. All of these issues should play into that initial needs assessment. 

Q. What types of businesses typically arm their guards?  

A. The gaming industry historically has a lot of armed people, but it’s not universal. Sometimes you’ll get convenience stores and other properties where there’s a lot of public traffic coming through. Some of the utilities, depending on what they are and what they are protecting, have armed guards. 

Q. How about hospitals?  

A. A lot of them don’t want to have firearms. They really don’t want to be in the shooting business, if you will. However, nobody goes to the hospital happy. There’s a lot of anxiety no matter what. So if you’re going there as a patient you have anxiety, if you’re there because a loved one or a friend is ill or injured you have some anxiety, and then you have people with various maladies and mental disorders—all of which can make any property challenging.  

On top of that, there’s also the availability of drugs. And [thieves] know that the drugs are locked and secured, but they also know if they stick a weapon in somebody’s face, that person is more likely to comply with a request to open that cabinet.  

Q: Besides firearms, what are the common types of force used by security guards? What are the potential drawbacks? 

A. One of the things we look at is what options do you have on the continuum of force? Pepper spray is pretty widely used, though there can be some insurance issues because—while the use of it isn’t as severe as a firearm—it’s used more frequently. And it’s messy. It does subject people in the area to cross contamination and overspray, so other people may get a whiff of it, and that can result in some insurance claims. So you have that frequency versus severity calculation that the insurance companies all run, and that can sometimes impact your premiums. 

Batons are actually difficult. They require a higher level of training, and what happens is people tend to go “medieval” with the stick. And the minute something happens, guards can forget all of their training, and it just becomes a club. And that’s problematic—the probability of injury is great with the baton. 

Q. Are handcuffs considered “force”? 

A. Handcuffs are another option. They are not truly a weapon, and there’s a large training issue with using them. The adage of “slap on the cuffs” is a really bad way to put it. If you don’t place them on properly, and you were to come from a distance and slap them on someone, it’s like taking a steel rod and hitting yourself on the bones of your wrists. Your reaction is going to be to pull away, which we generally call resisting. So just by the method that we’re using to apply the handcuffs, a compliant person can suddenly appear noncompliant.  

In my classes, I have all the students handcuff each other after lunch. I leave them all handcuffed, and then I have them sit down and I lecture for about half an hour, so that they can understand what happens as they are sitting there handcuffed.  

And what happens is that, as you move around just a little bit, sometimes the handcuffs’ oval shape and the wrist’s oval shape don’t match up anymore, and it hurts badly. They say, “it’s too tight,” and you just take a couple of fingers and readjust the cuffs around the wrist. So cuffs are a little bit more complicated in their minor nuisances, but training makes a huge difference.  

Q: Tasers seem to also be a popular choice for nonlethal force, though they come with their own set of challenges as well. What are the pros and cons of these devices? 

A. When Taser first came out it was an alternative to deadly force. If you were in a situation where you were justified in using deadly force, you could use this nondeadly device and hopefully rectify the situation with that.  

I was actually on Taser’s initial advisory board when the company started branching out more into the security industry. Tasers are a wonderful device, and again you’ve got a higher training level. It’s not the fix-all that many people would like to believe it is. In law enforcement generally you have multiple officers available when deploying the Taser, at least in a perfect world. And usually those other officers have higher levels of force, like a firearm, for backup. So if a Taser doesn’t work and they have to escalate force, they can do so.  

But what I’ve found is that the use of Tasers [with guards] were tenfold to that of firearms, because there’s the perception that it’s “okay” to tase people. So there has to be a lot of training and judgment in use of force and appropriateness so that we don’t overuse these devices just because they are nonlethal. 

Q. What other topics do you cover in your training?  

A. We have to go through the basics of criminal and civil law, as well as criminal procedure. We have to touch on some risk management concepts. Security officers need to understand certain things–they are not the police. For law enforcement, their goal is to make arrests and address crime. Security’s responsibility is to keep their property reasonably safe. If a threat actor has departed the property, unlike law enforcement, guards don’t give chase, they need to turn that over to the police. And a lot of them don’t understand that. They have that mentality of, “well something happened and I have to chase them down and get them.”  

I always ask, are there any misdemeanor crimes where you’d be justified in shooting somebody? I can spend up to an hour on that question. The answer is no. That’s the reason they are misdemeanors, they are lesser crimes. So a punch in the nose is a misdemeanor. Are you going to shoot someone because they punched you in the nose? You shouldn’t—and if you do, you’re going to have problems. Now if they are beating you to death, that changes the situation. You’re now in justified fear of your life.  

It’s a split-second decision with a firearm, and if you’re wrong, it can be catastrophic to the officer, whoever the other person is, and to the organization.