Illusion of Security

In the middle of the central city, there's a house with a "Beware of Dog" sign posted by the entrance on the gate. This sign is what security experts call creating an "illusion of security."

It's a poor man's security system, but it's better than having nothing at all. They say that if you were a burglar and had to choose between breaking into a house with such a sign and one without, chances are you'd choose the one without.

But how much do you want to rely on this illusion for security? If you were a homeowner with a little bit more to protect, chances are you'd probably want more than just a sign to keep burglars out. You'd probably want a real dog, or an alarm system, or a gun.

Since September 11, there's been a lot of talk about security, particularly the holes in it. Some critics believe that the breach of security that happened on 9-11 shows how our nation has been operating under a "beware of dog" security system.

And while there have been some security measures put in place that actually have teeth, much of our response has been akin to just posting more "beware of dog" signs: visual deterrents that seem to do little to actually foil bad guys.

Signs or dogs? There are now troops at the airports and guards outside many government buildings. They join a rapidly expanding army of security guards who are watching over more and more of our public places. Watching, and serving as a sign of vigilance against evildoers.

But are they making us safer? Or are they just cosmetic enhancements to make us feel safer?

The concerns and challenges faced today by the Federal Aviation Administration -- which is trying to beef up and professionalize baggage screeners and other security positions -- are the same ones shared by the private security industry.

It took 9-11 to raise the stature of airport screeners. Before that, they were merely an invisible link in the security hierarchy, nothing more than minimum-wage earners on an assembly line -- much like your average unarmed security guard.

"I tried several years ago to raise issues about airport security," said Al Howenstein, legislative representative of the California Association of Licensed Security Agencies, Guards and Associates (CALSAGA). "You talk about the weakest link -- in any operation it's usually at the lowest level."

The airline industry did the same thing that many businesses do with regards to security, Howenstein pointed out: they went for the lowest bid. They chose the cheapest possible options from security companies that will offer them the cheapest rate, spending the least amount of money on those individuals performing menial security functions.

Therefore, they got what they paid for: a sign instead of the dog.

Security Guards

People in the security business tend to scoff at the familiar cliché of the sleeping security guard. They won't deny that this public perception exists, but they'll also point out how many cops they know who snooze on the job. And a soundly sleeping dog might as well be a "beware of dog" sign.

Yet even when the dog is on the job, is he effective? There's no denying that low pay and often boring working conditions create the high turnover rate in the business, or the fact that many people who work guard jobs have other jobs. With what most are paid, they have to have another job.

Like the baggage screener, the typical unarmed guard is often paid minimum wage to perform a level of service that is considered the first line of defense for many corporate assets. There are virtually no specific qualifications for this line of work. According to the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS), the regulatory agency within the Department of Consumer Affairs that monitors the private security industry, the only real qualifications are: be 18 years old and have a clean criminal record.

This doesn't mean that you can't work as a security guard if you have a spotty record. The agency admits that the criminal background check can take the Department of Justice and FBI six months or longer to complete. Who's going to wait that long on the unemployment line for their registration to come through?

Yet they don't really have to wait, because the applicant can actually start working with a temporary guard card, which is good for four months. So often the guards are working without proper registration, or worse yet, with criminal records.

For years, many in the industry have recognized the need for better enforcement of standards and regulations with regards to unscrupulous private security operators who take advantage of such holes in the system by providing illegal, unlicensed and often under-insured services at below market prices.

"They're irresponsible," said L. Earle Graham, president of CALSAGA. "They're putting people out there that are employed by them without the proper background check. They look to the short term to make a quick buck. And if they get caught, they just go out of business."

This means that often consumers think they're buying a dog, but in fact, all they're getting is a sign. So it comes back to: you get what you pay for. And presented with a choice between well-trained, experienced guards or a cheaper, less experienced option, those who run security companies say most businesses choose the latter.

"That's all a matter of money," said Kenneth Garrett, president of All-Phase Security Inc. "You can put all kinds of well-trained people out there, but you've got to be able to pay them a decent salary. It's going to be incumbent upon our industry to facilitate these changes."

Airport Troops

The government's current method for showing how we've beefed up our security is by displaying more security. But is more security necessarily better security? That is, are 20 "beware of dog" signs better than one?

The presence of the National Guard is hard to miss at our airports. Such safety enhancements have been in place since the start of October, but around every corner, from one news story to the next, we still hear of threats and breaches of security. Exactly what is the role of the National Guard?

"They are in a support role to provide military support to civil authority," explained Lieutenant Colonel Terry Knight of the National Guard.

But what exactly do they do?

"They're monitoring," said Knight. "They're watching to make sure the screeners are doing what they're supposed to be doing. And they're there to support law enforcement if it's needed."

So basically, they're security guards in military uniforms?

"They look like they're just a visual presence, but they're not just standing around," Knight insisted. "They are watching, they are monitoring, and they've gotten special training from the FAA. Believe me, they're not just a prop. They are actually functional and have assigned duties."

These are essentially the same job descriptions of an unarmed security guard, according to the BSIS manual: to observe and report. What exactly are the National Guardsmen looking for?

"They know what to look for," Knight responded. "They know what sets off a red light. They're definitely supporting and following the lead of the airport authority, law enforcement and the security folks."

According to Knight, the National Guard is scheduled to do more monitoring up until March, at which time the Federal Marshals will step in and take over permanently.

"Yes, there'll be more people," Knight noted, "but it's going to make things safer. It's going to cause everybody to cover their bases a little bit better."

Whether they actually make airports and institutions more secure, demand for security guards is on the rise. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of security officers is expected to increase 21 to 35 percent through 2010, outpacing most other professions.

"We have seen a rise in the number of applications for guards, and we believe that it's a result of September 11," said Kevin Flanagan, spokesman for BSIS.

Kenneth Garrett believes that the rise in guard applications has to do with people reviewing some of their security needs after 9-11. He hopes that we will see some long-term changes in the future.

"And [these changes] should come about in an intelligently planned-out method rather than being just reactionary to the whole terrorism thing," he said. "The industry needs to rise above where it is today. It's the same thing with the airport screeners. They are all low paid or ill trained with minimal supervision. That needs to be changed industrywide."

Exactly what changes are in store for the public and private sector security industries will determine whether the guard at his post is a sign, a dog or a dog with teeth.

Ching Lee writes for the Sacramento News and Review, where a version of this article originally appeared.

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