A recently published report sheds light on security officer perceptions of their jobs, training, and the competence of their colleagues. It provides fresh perspective, writes Nicholas Dynon, in an area otherwise dominated by stereotypes.
It’s an unwelcome fact: to put it diplomatically, the media is often not kind to the security industry – and to security guards in particular.
So much so, in fact, that one might be led to believe that the media seems has something against private sector security officers.
When guarding hits the media it’s usually for the wrong reasons, whether it’s footage of bar security beating up a non-compliant patron, guards sleeping or engaging in inappropriate social media while on duty, security officer corruption or links to organised crime, the media seems to love making private security look bad.
And it’s not just the 24 hour news cycle that perpetuates negative stereotypes of security officers as unfit, unprofessional, and incompetent. With Hollywood serving us up the likes of Paul Blart: Mall Cop (2009, and the 2015 sequel) and Richard Jewell (2019), cinema and home audiences everywhere are fed depictions of private security officers as well intentioned yet bumbling law enforcement wannabes.
And if that’s not enough, our own government is also in on the anti-guard antics. There was, of course, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s infamous claim in April 2021 that an MIQ security guard “was lying” about his COVID-19 tests. This followed Housing Minister Megan Woods’ suggestion in August 2020 that private security wasn’t up to the task of securing MIQ sites and that the government could do a better job.
Yet private security guards continue to guard MIQ facilities, as well as countless other sites for government, hospitals, schools, businesses and communities around New Zealand.
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They do so in their tens of thousands, and as the market’s response to the gradual decades-long retreat of the New Zealand Police from the services that police used to provide, such as event security, alarm response, and other frontline tasks. They do so without weapons and without any legal powers beyond those held by ordinary citizens. They do so in the almost complete absence of public recognition and of thanks for their service.
It would appear that our media, cultural and political elites have been dominating the narrative when it comes to describing the value and performance of the nation’s private security officers. And it’s fairly clear that their descriptions do not tend to be very positive.
So, is all this negativity against our private sector protectors of the community at all warranted? Can there be justification for our hard working security officers receiving the ire of our society’s influencers? In short, how do our private security officers actually perform?
What security offers say
The Competence of Frontline Security Professionals and What They Say About Their Work was published in September 2021 by the International Foundation for Protection Officers (IFPO) and undertaken by Perpetuity Research & Consultancy International (PRCI). According to the report, negative perceptions of security offers is a global phenomenon.
“The security sector generally, and security officers/guards specifically suffer from an image problem,” states the report authors. “Around the world the perception of the poorly presented, badly dressed, under trained, overweight, hapless male security guard pervades.”
“Negative perceptions of frontline security work have been fed by a longstanding concern about the competence of operatives,” it continues. “In short, the perception is that despite the important work that security officers engage in, which may even be considered essential, many of those who are involved are neither able nor professional. But is this true? What competencies are needed? Where are the gaps and how can they be filled?”
The objective of the report and its associated survey and interview-based research is to better understand the perspectives and experiences of frontline security personnel, with the aim of highlighting key considerations for enhancing their capabilities.
In particular, the research explored the range of tasks that security officers undertake, the perceived difficulty of those tasks and of the competence of their colleagues, and the effectiveness of training. It also looked at other key issues impacting on frontline security personnel, including licensing and the use of force (including carrying weapons).
The report’s findings are based on 10,625 responses to a survey of security officers from nine countries: Canada, Ecuador, India, Ireland, Nigeria, South Korea, Saudi Arabia, the UK, and the USA; supplemented by online one-to-one interviews with 42 security professionals.
According to the report, general perceptions among respondents of working in security were fairly positive. 59% indicated their work provides an opportunity to serve the public; 57% indicated that the hours of work suited them; 55% indicated the work is interesting. Although 53% overall saw it as a career, 56% of those that receive on-going training agreed, compared with 38% of those that do not.
On the matter of pay, 38% stated that they feel that it pays well, whereas 37% neither agreed nor disagreed that it does, and 23% disagreed. Among UK respondents, only 23% agreed that it pays well, and those employed by guarding companies were least likely to feel that their job pays well (29%) compared to those employed in-house, who were most likely to agree (47%).
Frequency of tasks
Categorising the work of security officers into six ‘typical’ tasks, the survey found that undertaking access control is the most common (54% did this often); followed by undertaking physical patrols (48%), customer service (44%), monitoring and managing alarms and emergencies (39%), enforcing rules (39%) and finally basic investigations (32%)
It found that the frequency with which officers undertake particular tasks is influenced by a number of characteristics, including sector, age of respondent, and education level of respondent.
Officers employed by a contractor, for example, were the most likely to carry each out ‘often’, those employed were next likely, and those self-employed the least likely, indicating that there is more specialisation among self-employed officers. Respondents who had worked in security the longest were the most likely to indicate each task is ‘core’.
Difficulty of tasks
Respondents rarely perceived the abovementioned six tasks to be ‘difficult’, with most perceiving each task as either ‘easy’ or ‘average’. Customer service was the task most commonly seen as ‘easy’ (50%); followed by physical patrols/surveillance (49%), access control (45%), monitoring and managing alarms and emergencies (43%), basic investigations (42%) and enforcing rules (37%).
Overall, a fairly low proportion of respondents perceived their colleagues to be ‘low’ in competence – between 6% and 13% of respondents rated their colleagues as ‘low’ in competence in each activity.
Respondents more commonly rated their colleagues as ‘high’ in competence than ‘medium’ although at most 53% of respondents rated colleagues as ‘high’ in competence in any given activity – suggesting that ample room remains for improvement in how well activities are completed.
The activities most commonly perceived to be carried out with ‘high’ competence were customer service (53%), and emergency response (51%).
Those least commonly perceived to be carried out with ‘high’ competence were working with civil and criminal codes, statutes, bylaws, codes etc. (39%), conducting an investigation (41%) and both report writing (42%) and written communication skills (42%).
“Although there were some specific variations across a number of characteristics, the only clear overall trend in respect of perception of competence and the characteristics of respondents, was that across all of the tasks explored, those who receive on-going training within their current role more commonly viewed their colleagues to be high in competence than those that do not receive any on-going training,” stated the report’s authors. “This would suggest that on-going training is an important factor in performing competently.”
Although only between 5% and 9% of respondents perceived their training across each activity to be ineffective; those rating the training as ‘highly effective’ topped at only 55%.
There was a strong correlation between work areas where training was rated as ‘highly effective’ and where work is perceived to be carried out with a high level of competence, including customer service, situational awareness, and emergency response. Correspondingly, those where the training was least commonly rated as ‘high (effective)’ were the same as those least commonly perceived to be carried out with high competence by colleagues.
85% of respondents indicated that they do receive on-going training, although it should be noted that a very wide definition was used (including both formal and informal types).
Contracted respondents were less likely to receive on-going training than in-house and self-employed respondents.
10% of respondents indicated that they had received no site-specific training after being assigned to their current site.
Employment type impacted on the likelihood of receiving site- specific training (contracted respondents were less likely to receive it than in-house and self-employed respondents), as did the presence of on-going training (those that do not receive on-going training are much less likely to have received site-specific training than those that do receive on-going training).
82% of respondents indicated that they need a license to undertake their current work as a security officer. 60% agreed that licensing increases the trust placed by law enforcement/ agencies in security personnel to do their jobs, while 55% believed that the licensing process gives security officers a better understanding of their duties, and 25% thought licensing to be a waste of time.
Use of force
According to the report, 31% of respondents indicated that they never use force; 25% use force about once per year; and 23% use force about once a month (although this figure is much less in the UK).
Cash-in-transit/armored car guards were the most likely to have used force, followed by door supervisor/bouncers and undercover store detective/loss prevention. In terms of sector, use of force was most common in the executive protection sector.
Respondents that receive on-going training were much more likely to use force than those who do not receive it, while contracted respondents were much less likely to use force than their in-house and self-employed counterparts.
The training received in the use of force was most often (38%) perceived to be adequate, while a third (33%) perceived it to be effective. One in ten respondents (10%) thought it was not effective (‘low’). Cash-in-transit/armoured guards were much more likely to perceive training in the use of force to be effective, which reflects their likelihood of using greater levels of force.
Carrying a weapon
Respondents were asked whether they ever carried a weapon and 35% said did not. Of those that did, the weapon carried most commonly, by a third of respondents (33%), was an electrical energy device. Nearly as many carried a striking weapon (29%), and more than a fifth (22%) carried a chemical irritant. Less than a fifth (17%) carried a firearm.
The vast majority of those that carried a weapon thought they had received adequate training in how and when to use it (90%). Respondents holding a license were much more likely to indicate they had received adequate training to use their weapon(s) than those without a license. Further, respondents that (generally) receive on-going training were much more likely to indicate they had received adequate training to use their weapon(s) than those who do not receive on-going training.
In conclusion, while the report’s detailed results were interesting enough, what was perhaps most compelling about the report was that it presents the perspectives of those engaged in an occupation that is otherwise relatively silent, and in doing so it sheds an important and new light on security officers and their jobs.
Importantly, it also gives some insight into those areas where security officers do well, and those where there are opportunities for improvements and change. In doing so, it provides for insight into the occupation beyond the negative stereotypes that otherwise obscure it while also identifying potential areas where positive developments might assist in the eventual demolition of these stereotypes.