Security industry weighs next steps to thwart shootings

BY MARCIA HEROUX POUNDS
SUN SENTINEL/TNS

FORT LAUDERDALE – Two mass murders in Florida in less than a year’s time.

And there was at least one common element involving the men who are said to have pulled the triggers: the shooter at the Orlando nightclub Pulse last spring and the alleged shooter at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 7 were employed as security guards.

Passengers wait outside on the tarmac after a gunman opened fire at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport on Jan. 6.
(DAVID SANTIAGO/EL NUEVO HERALD/TNS)

Incredulous for some, given that armed security guards are usually subject to state licensing, drug testing, and even psychological testing.

More background checks
But while security companies defend their screening processes as stringent, they also complain they can’t access enough background information from federal authorities. Some are implementing more frequent background checks and increasing their monitoring of security guards on the job.

“We’ve heard from clients that ‘we want to avoid similar incidents,’” said John Friedlander, senior director with Kroll’s Security Risk Management in North America, which consults for security companies and lends training support.

As a result, some companies are conducting more frequent criminal background checks, which are usually undertaken before a candidate individual is hired, and beefing up the monitoring of security officers.

“We often encourage greater field supervision,” Friedlander said.

Cost a factor
But most industry leaders point toward the FBI, saying federal law enforcement and security agencies should share more criminal background and watch-list information with private security employers.

The FBI didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Friedlander said the demand for more routine criminal background checks, perhaps annually or semi-annually, is limited to large, prominent customers such as religious institutions or schools.

That’s because additional background checks add to the cost of hiring security.

For the most part, screening including criminal background checks and drug panels, are only done before a candidate is hired, Friedlander said.

Florida’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Affairs said the screening process for a “G” license for an armed security guard has not been changed since the Florida shootings.

Fingerprint retention
But the department is moving forward with new oversights, including fingerprint retention, a measure passed by the state Legislature in the last session, said Jennifer Meale, spokeswoman for the department.

She said the department is working toward new legislation that would allow access to the Mental Competency Database for class “G” licenses for armed security guards and “K” licenses for instructors.

The database identifies persons who are prohibited from purchasing a firearm based on court records that show mental defects or commitments to mental institutions.

Internal monitoring
Steve Amitay, executive director and general counsel for the National Association of Security Companies in Washington, said his association has been pushing for more watch-list information from federal authorities to be shared with companies.

He said some companies are stepping up internal monitoring.

“I think one of the major changes since Orlando are security companies really trying to better engage their supervisors and managers out in the field to be on the lookout for personality changes and odd behavior, Amitay said. “They’re providing training to the managers, recognizing indicators of destructive terrorist activity.”

But if security companies are taking such actions, they’re doing so quietly.

‘Strong controls’
G4S, a worldwide security company that employs 42,655 security guards including about 5,300 in Florida and 2,600 in South Florida, employed Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at the Pulse nightclub.

The company said it has not changed any of its own hiring or screening processes for security guards since the mass killing.

“We have strong controls and processes in place. G4S’s background investigations processes comply with federal, state and local law. In the United States, our background investigations meet or exceed the requirements of U.S. state agencies,” said G4S spokeswoman Monica Lewman-Garcia.

“In Mateen’s case, his background investigations were clean and all processes and procedures were followed in accordance with policy,’’ she added.

Mateen may have been licensed, but G4S was fined $151,400 by the state after the Pulse nightclub shooting because the killer’s license carried the wrong name of the psychologist. G4S called it an “administrative error.”

Airport shooting plea
In the more recent case of Esteban Santiago, the Iraq veteran who is charged with killing five people and wounding six others at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport, was employed by an Anchorage, Alaska, franchise that is part of Omaha-based Signal 88.

An office assistant who answered a phone of company co-founder and CEO Reed Nyffelered in Omaha said the company isn’t commenting on the tragedy. The Anchorage franchise’s co-owners Zachary Alsterberg and William Serra were “out of the country,” said manager Travis Steward.

When asked about the franchise’s practices in screening and monitoring security guards, Steward said the company “had no comment at this time.”

It is unclear whether Santiago was licensed by Alaska.

The state’s Department of Public Safety earlier this month denied the Sun Sentinel’s public information request as Santiago is the subject of an FBI investigation and an active prosecution by the U.S. Attorney in South Florida. Santiago has entered “not guilty” pleas to 22 federal criminal counts in an indictment.

In both cases of Mateen and Santiago, the FBI had either investigated or been aware of possible mental health issues.

This report was supplemented with previous Sun Sentinel and Orlando Sentinel staff reports.

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