Texas Sheriff wants security guards to bolster force

Officials with the county's largest deputy's union are slamming the partnership's effectiveness and questioning whether the county could face legal liability

By James Pinkerton
The Houston Chronicle

Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia has trained the first of what he expects will be hundreds of private security guards who have signed up to help deputies apprehend wanted suspects, secure crime scenes and search for missing persons.

But officials with the county's largest deputy's union are slamming the partnership's effectiveness and questioning whether Harris County could face legal liability for possible misconduct by the private security guards because of the training.

Garcia announced the partnership Thursday at the sheriff's office training academy near Humble, where 60 private security guards who passed a background check underwent an eight-hour course in note-taking, crime-scene preservation, threat detection and dispute resolution. Training will be four times a year, and the sheriff said he hopes to have 200 to 300 security officers on board by year's end.

"It makes sense that we develop a greater coordination between law enforcement and private security so that it ultimately enhances public safety out in the community," Garcia said. "Because these security professionals are already working in some of the toughest neighborhood and toughest areas, it makes sense."

Continuing Education
Robert Goerlitz, president of the Harris County Deputies Organization, criticized the sheriff's plan.

"This is nothing but a smoke and mirrors play at saying we're going to have more boots on the ground, which is ridiculous," Goerlitz said. "It's basically a continuing education course for security guards - we're adding to their education on the county dime."

The sheriff said the security officers, and their companies, are screened and subjected to background checks and are not being deputized or given enhanced police powers. Garcia said the department will never have the number of officers it would like patrolling, so it has turned to 25,000 local security officers for assistance.

Legal advisers reviewed the partnership, known as Law Enforcement and Private Security (LEAPS), "and we're satisfied it is a proper use of county funds and resources," said assistant county attorney Robert Soard.

Larry Karson, a criminal justice instructor at the University of Houston-Downtown, said the partnership has a "great potential" to help criminal investigations.

"The sheriff's office is trying to develop a partnership with the private industry who are the first responders in many cases to crimes on private property," said Karson, who was also a federal law enforcement official. "And if they're trained not to contaminate a crime scene when they discover one, it allows the sheriff's investigators to better prosecute the case."

Partnership Problems
If terrorists attacked a Houston refinery, plant security guards would likely be the first to respond, so training them how to preserve evidence and protect the crime scene would be crucial to any investigation, he said.

But such a partnership could create problems with some guards who may decide to abuse their authority, he added.

"The potential pitfall is some security officer may develop an attitude of wanting to be a law enforcement officer, where they are a cop wannabe and you have the problem that developed in Florida,'' Karson said, referring to the recent slaying of an African-American teen by a neighborhood watch officer.

Bob Burt, the past president of the Associated Security Services and Investigators for the State of Texas, said Dallas County has operated a similar program since 1995. Garcia's program differs by including in-house corporate security officers, as well as those working at industrial plants, he said.

"Our client base … is very much on board," Burt said, "because they recognize we are increasing our professionalism, our observation skills, in an effort to help law enforcement but certainly not to replace law enforcement."

The security guards will receive a certificate and a uniform pin to show they were trained by the sheriff's office, said spokeswoman Christina Garza.

"We certainly don't want them to carry out law enforcement duties," Garza said, "but we want them to be the best witnesses, the eyes and ears, to give us the best information to make that arrest."

Copyright 2012 The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company

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