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2 Feb 2021

Cassie Cowan, From Allies to Abolitionists - Denver

Authority unchecked - Why private security firms also need to be scrutinized during the Defund the Police movement

[The Business & Human Rights Resource Centre invited Allied Universal, G4S, and Warburg Pincus to respond to this blog piece. Responses from Allied Universal, G4S, and Warburg Pincus are available here.]

After celebrating a successful art exhibition showcasing his work in Denver, CO artist Raverro Stinnett sat at Union Station waiting for his train home. Shortly after sitting down, an Allied security guard informed Raverro that he could not sit in the seemingly public Great Hall and told Raverro to follow him to another location. That guard, James Hunter, a supervisor with Allied Universal, lured Raverro into a bathroom away from any security cameras where he proceeded to beat him with leather studded gloves while three other Allied security guards stood watch. They left him without medical assistance.

Raverro suffered a critical brain injury and continues to have lasting health impacts that prevent him from creating art at the level he had been prior to the attack. James Hunter has now been convicted and the other guards received probation for their role and for not stopping the attack. Raverro had been fighting for almost 2 years to receive a settlement for his injuries, and on Oct 27, 2020 one was finally reached for an undisclosed amount.

Raverro’s story is shocking, but it’s even more alarming to learn that there are similar incidents happening across the United States, and the world, by Allied Security, G4S, and other private security firms. Private security firms have a disturbing history of racially motivated violence in the US, yet local governments and businesses across the country continue to contract with them.

A simple google search of “Allied Security Incidents” or “G4S Security Incidents” will lead you down a disturbing rabbit hole of violence, racial profiling, and abuse of authority. Often private security guards are hired to control and handle complex issues, such as working at homeless shelters or at public transit stations. Allied Universal incidents include transit riders dying in the custody of private security firms and assaults against displaced people looking for shelter. In many of these incidents, victims are racially profiled. This includes Allied Universal security officers assaulting black teenagers at a bus stop and handcuffing a black teenager outside a mall who was then bitten by the officer’s dog. In one instance, mall security contracted through Allied profiled a black security guard on his way to work at Louis Vuitton. In March 2020, a black former security guard brought a lawsuit against the company, alleging she was subjected to retaliation and harassment and was wrongfully terminated. In November 2019, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund blacklisted G4S over human rights concerns.

The growth of these private security firms is also alarming. Currently Allied Universal, backed by private equity firm Warburg Pincus, is bidding to acquire G4S. If G4S’ shareholders approve the acquisition, Allied would become the largest private security firm in the world, expected to generate approximately $18 billion in annual revenues and increase their workforce from 300,000 to more than 750,000 people with operations in 85 countries.

Staffing is one area of concern. A study by USA Today and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that the pressure to meet private contract demands creates a pattern of questionable hires within private security companies. Supervisors are often told to fill posts even when there are concerns about the individuals applying and to later fire them if they make errors or cause harm. Low wages and high-turnover exacerbate this problem as there is a need to fill positions quickly.

According to the study done by USA Today, G4S has claimed to have a more rigorous background check than most government programs, yet at one point in 2014, they were averaging an incident every other day. And even though background checks may be conducted prior to hiring new guards, these do not show domestic violence injunctions, arrests, or police misconduct allegations, even though this information is publicly available.

Given these human rights risks, city boards and governments deciding on security options should consider community-centered approaches instead. Civil society groups and the general public have a critical role in increasing understanding that effective, safer, and less expensive alternatives exist.

Denver’s Regional Transportation District felt that pressure. In August, RTD board member Shontel Lewis proposed a working group to interrogate alternative approaches to security and develop a new system designed by the community members. While that initial resolution failed 14-1, after reviewing over 700 incidents that were listed under “use of force” from January 2018 to August 2020 and sustained pressure from community members, RTD canceled its $25 million dollar contract with Allied Universal in October 2020.

Denver is not the only example of a city considering alternatives to private security. Alternative methods of security are beginning to be tested in other U.S. cities like Portland, which is studying what happens when social workers replace guards and specialized employees serve transit riders instead of armed police. Cities across the country should be exploring alternative approaches to security that prioritize and integrate community-led solutions. We need to ensure that calls to “Defund the Police” result in approaches to safety and security that benefit communities, rather than line the pocketbooks of private security firms with records of abuse. Local, city, and state government officials must stop putting bottom-line calculations above rights-respecting safety measures that support and protect the community they are responsible for serving.

Cassie Cowan, From Allies to Abolitionists - Denver