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Illustration by Gordon Studer

Career Moves: Do Security Leaders Need Law Enforcement Backgrounds?

“Prior law enforcement experience preferred.” This line appears so often in job postings for security management jobs, but should it? Are the skills and experience gained in a career in law enforcement transferrable to a career in security management?

A common reason for businesses to seek out a candidate with prior law enforcement experience is to be able to leverage the candidate’s professional network. Hiring someone with a law enforcement background can be beneficial when working with outside agencies on investigations and emergency responses.

Many industries are also faced with regulatory security requirements set by federal agencies. During a career of service, a law enforcement officer will have had countless opportunities to interact and develop connections with other local, state, and federal agencies. Hiring someone familiar with the regulatory authority can provide an advantage to the organization in maintaining compliance and fostering information sharing. But can a security professional who does not have a background in law enforcement also develop an extensive network of connections with law enforcement and regulatory agencies?

Success in a security management position goes beyond “who you know” and relies heavily on “what you know.” So, does a past career in law enforcement adequately prepare someone to step directly into a security management role? Is a security professional who worked a lifetime in security positions less qualified due to lack of a law enforcement background?

Essential Knowledge

While both public law enforcement and private security personnel are charged with protecting the general well-being and safety of people and property, the ways they go about performing these functions vary greatly.

Comparing the two roles is similar to comparing psychiatrists with psychologists. Psychiatrists are trained medical doctors who can prescribe medications, and they spend much of their time with patients on medication management as a course of treatment. Psychologists are not medical doctors and focus extensively on psychotherapy and treating emotional and mental suffering in patients with behavioral intervention. Because of different training, resources, and techniques used in treatment, someone who excels as a psychiatrist might not succeed in a psychologist’s position—despite having a more advanced education. Conversely, a psychologist could not move into a psychiatrist’s position without additional training. In the same manner, a security professional could not move into a law enforcement role without additional training.

The selection process and specialized training for law enforcement positions gives them a perception of exclusivity. “It’s not for everyone” is often told to candidates who fail written tests or who drop out of police academies due to the rigorous physical and academic requirements. The selection process creates a somewhat false sense of superiority—a feeling that security is a lesser position because the selection process is not as restrictive as law enforcement.

There is a common misconception that security is the light version of law enforcement. A 2017 report from the Security Research Initiative (SRI) about the attitudes law enforcement officers have towards the private security sector found that out of more than 1,000 respondents, only 4 percent viewed private security as an essential partner, while about 30 percent of respondents said private security was simply tolerated.

The report, Police Views on Private Security, found that those surveyed generally favored private security performing roles such as access control and crowd control because they saw these roles as less critical than policing. The perception that security is a lower-level position tends to lead retiring law enforcement officers to seek a job in security management because they believe it is easier work.

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But security management is its own profession with unique skill sets and knowledge bases that are necessary for success. While it is not impossible to gain security skills and education in the public sector, there is no automatic guarantee that a career in law enforcement will adequately prepare someone to transition directly into a security management role.

Using the ASIS Certified Protection Professional (CPP®) credential as a baseline of knowledge, there are several areas where a law enforcement career would be beneficial, and several where there would likely be a knowledge gap.

Of the seven domains included on the CPP exam—security principles and practices, business principles and practices, investigations, personnel security, physical security, information security, and crisis management—some subject areas fall outside what would typically be learned from a career in law enforcement.

Investigations is often the top-scoring domain for CPP candidates who previously worked in law enforcement. Although there are differences in levels of authority, basic investigative techniques remain the same in public or private practice. In a security management role, however, a broader skill set is needed, which is why investigations only accounts for 10 percent of the CPP exam.

Business principles and practices and information security are less common skills in a public law enforcement role, but they combine to make up 22 percent of the CPP exam. Financial planning and reporting, human resources regulations, contract law, liability, insurance, information systems, network security, and data protection are some of the topics covered in these sections, and they are deemed necessary for a well-rounded security professional to understand.

Let’s look at two characters, based on real individuals, who both recently passed the CPP exam.

Sam, a retired police detective with 25 years of law enforcement experience, is now working as part of the corporate security team at Fortune 500 company. Initially hired as a contractor before being brought in-house as a corporate investigator, he demonstrated a solid record of completing successful investigations for the company. Sam had passed the Certified Fraud Examiner (CFE) exam, and he was looking to add the CPP credential onto his résumé. After failing to successfully complete the CPP exam three times, Sam attended study groups and collaborated with colleagues before finally passing the test on his fourth attempt.

John began his career as a security guard at an amusement park while attending college and earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice. John worked his way up through the security industry from contract guard companies to in-house corporate positions. Eventually he ended up working as a security specialist for the same Fortune 500 company’s corporate security team as Sam. Working with several retired law enforcement officers, John decided to take the CPP exam to boost his professional credentials. John passed the CPP exam on his first attempt.

Sam was an outstanding police detective and investigator for his organization. The CFE exam had more of a direct correlation to his work as a police detective, and Sam found it challenging but overall much easier than the CPP exam.

John’s prior positions helped him gain a broad level of experience beyond just physical security. On the contract guard side of the business, he became familiar with human resources regulation, contracts, and financial planning. As he transitioned into corporate positions, he picked up skills on budgeting, network security, and regulatory compliance. When taking the CPP exam, he found it challenging but manageable.

Both Sam and John did ultimately achieve CPP certification, and in reviewing their exam results the differences in their backgrounds became clear. While Sam aced the investigations section, it was John’s lowest score. John, however, outscored Sam in business principles and practices and information security. John also edged out Sam in crisis management and personnel security.

When looking back at the three previous failed attempts, Sam recognized that a contributing reason for his failures was that he was “answering the questions like a cop.” This made a significant difference for him between passing and failing—recognizing that security professionals and police officers respond to situations in different ways.

This is not to say that broader skills cannot be learned in public law enforcement. As someone advances in rank into more administrative roles, he or she will need to develop an understanding of business practices, such as budgeting, hiring, terminations, and public relations. This would make it easier for a high-ranking law enforcement officer to transition to the private sector, but there are still differences that may pose a challenge in a career transition.

Understanding the Position

Anyone looking to obtain a security management position must understand the role of security management and security in today’s corporate world. This begins by understanding that there are multiple forms of security management. Contract guard services managers, security consultants, and corporate security managers all have important roles to play in the security industry, but each requires a different skill set that may or may not benefit from a background in public law enforcement.

Security consultants can take on a wide range of projects, allowing a retiring law enforcement officer to find a niche that fits his or her skills and experiences. Consultants typically work on short-term projects for clients to help solve issues, provide expert guidance, and implement risk mitigation solutions. The varying nature of clients’ concerns allows a consulting agency to select the best person based on previous experience to service the client.

Guard force management makes up a good portion of security management positions. These positions are probably the most similar to the structure of a police department; however, there are additional responsibilities typically related to human resources and payroll that may be new to someone coming from law enforcement.

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The guard industry is also an area where the security manager title can have diverse meanings. On some contracts the security manager is largely delegated to handling scheduling and payroll for the guard force, with little to no involvement with the broader corporate security group. In other cases, the contracted security manager may be almost indistinguishable from the in-house corporate security staff, and he or she regularly has the opportunity to share input and contribute to the overall security program.

On the corporate level, security has grown beyond simply supervising security officers and monitoring cameras. A corporate security manager today may be an expert in business continuity planning, emergency response, and regulatory compliance. Often, they take on the role of project manager—responsible for everything from design and procurement to implementation and quality control. They must stay up to date on the newest technologies and understand the background network infrastructure on which security systems operate.

The Tech Divide

More than any other single factor, the technological advancements in security are widening the knowledge gap and perhaps diminishing the value of a law enforcement background. In a typical law enforcement career, developing IT knowledge and skills is not part of the normal experience.

It is not unusual today for security professionals to work directly with IT staff to install and service security systems, such as access control and video management systems. A security manager must understand the impact of IP security cameras on network bandwidth resources and how data encryption prevents access control and personally identifiable information from being accessible, for example.

With the lines between physical security and information security becoming more blurred, a successful security manager must understand computer networks and information security. In some companies, physical security is even being merged with the IT group to create a converged security business unit.

Making the Transition

An August 2018 Police Magazine article, “How to Survive the Academy,” cites a U.S. Department of Justice survey indicating that 14 percent of police academy recruits do not graduate. Rather than try to force a round peg into a square hole by pushing someone into a career they are not suited for, the academy identifies the recruits who are likely to be unsuccessful early in the process. However, there is no designated academy to prepare someone for a career in the private sector or to weed out those less likely to succeed.

A good portion of the skills and knowledge gained in a public law enforcement career will carry over to the private sector, but there are also many differences and extensive knowledge which must be gained to be successful in the private sector.

A retired officer who seeks post-retirement work as an armed security officer, an investigator, or a security consultant will typically find success. These positions rely heavily on the skills and experiences gained in a career in law enforcement. However, those looking to make the move directly into security management positions may find unexpected challenges facing them.

To successfully make the move directly from public law enforcement into a security management position, a job candidate needs to research the position he or she is applying for and fully understand the expectations and responsibilities. Based on the job requirements, the candidate should look back on past experiences and identify potential knowledge gaps. Identifying these gaps prior to taking on a new role will help to direct the job candidate to take necessary steps to close the gap and expand upon his or her skill set.

Long before retirement, those thinking of making a career change should plan ahead. Developing a professional network that expands beyond other law enforcement personnel should be a high priority. A local ASIS International or other security association chapter is a good place to start to learn more about the private sector. Throughout a career in law enforcement, most officers have had an opportunity to develop contacts within private companies. These contacts can be used to create opportunities for a career transition, but also as sources of information on what skills and experiences are needed to succeed in their business market.

Regardless of whether someone has a law enforcement background or has worked his or her way up through the security industry, there is a base of knowledge needed to be successful as a security manager. Anyone looking to advance into management roles needs to recognize his or her strengths and weaknesses and take appropriate steps to close knowledge gaps. Candidates should seek out continuing education resources to enhance skills and forge a robust network of contacts both in public and private organizations.

Developing a well-rounded skill set is the best advantage any candidate can have to be successful in seeking out a security management position.

Joseph Ranucci, CPP, is the U.S. manager of security for Almac. He spent 15 years working in management and executive positions for multiple guard service providers. Ranucci began his career in 1993 when he worked as a security guard while earning a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice.

A Challenging Transition

Not all career transitions from law enforcement to security are straightforward, and not all experiences apply. Consider this anecdote and what you would do differently, either as a job candidate or as the client.

Emily had a very successful 20-year career in law enforcement; during her time on the force, she worked in several units including patrol, K9, and as sergeant overseeing the 911 dispatch center.

After retirement, Emily sought out a second phase to her career in the private security field. She assumed her time and experience in law enforcement would allow her to make an easy transition into security, and she was hired by a contract guard company as the security manager to oversee the security operations center (SOC) for a regional water utility company.

Almost immediately after starting the new role, it became obvious to the client that Emily’s lack of experience in the security field was a hindrance. Her inexperience with the types of systems used and general corporate security practices, combined with her intent to reshape the SOC to operate more like the 911 center she was accustomed to, caused conflicts and disruptions almost immediately.

When applying to the position, Emily indicated that she was experienced with computerized dispatch and reporting systems. She assumed that because she was able to use these complex software systems that she would easily learn the access control and video management systems utilized by the SOC. Having an expertise in one type of system, however, does not automatically make learning a new system easier. The access control and video management systems were different types of software than what she was accustomed to.

In the end, she needed to be instructed on their use in the same way an entry-level SOC operator was trained. This proved to be counterproductive to the organization because the security manager was supposed to be the subject matter expert responsible for training the staff.

One of the first initiatives Emily attempted to roll out was having the SOC operators trained and certified in CPR so that they could give instructions over the phone if necessary. While this is an important skill for a police dispatcher, the SOC operators were primarily responsible for alarm and video surveillance monitoring. In the event an emergency call came through the SOC, the limit of operators’ responsibility was to notify 911. Emily did not consider the potential liability to the company associated with the training. Broken down to its fundamental purpose, the SOC was intended to observe and report.

Adapting to the corporate structure and culture also proved challenging for Emily. Conflicts arose on budgeting and human resources concerns, and several clashes with the business units throughout the utility began to occur. Emily struggled to understand her role as the contracted security manager in relation to the client security manager. Because both positions had security manager titles, she assumed they had an equal level of authority, as there would be in law enforcement rank structure. As a manager she felt she had the authority to implement changes in policies and procedures, and often acted without checking with the client first. In most cases the initiatives she was implementing had to be reversed because they did not fit with the overall security plan
or direction.

Ultimately the client made the decision to replace Emily with someone who had come up through a security program and understood the systems, company culture, and customer service aspects of the position better.

The lesson to be learned here is that even a seasoned law enforcement professional should approach a career change into the security field with an open mind. Take the time to learn the expectations and limitations for the new position. Gain an understanding of the company culture and where security fits into it.

Experience and knowledge from time in law enforcement can be an asset, but moving too quickly without fully understanding the new role can create unnecessary complications.

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