John Kelly's Washington: On Death of Security Guard at Holocaust Museum

Security guards at work outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum after a shooting yesterday took the life of a colleague.
Security guards at work outside the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum after a shooting yesterday took the life of a colleague. (By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
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By John Kelly
Thursday, June 11, 2009

Until yesterday afternoon, many of us probably thought of security guards as annoyances. That's if we thought of them at all.

They're ubiquitous in Washington -- checking our IDs, telling us to empty our pockets, directing us through the magnetometer -- such a constant presence that they can become invisible, just another extension of the security apparatus that's attached to nearly every aspect of public life these days.

And then suddenly something happens. A man tries to get into a museum. He has a weapon. There's shooting.

Yesterday, Stephen Tyrone Johns of Temple Hills died. He was shot at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. He was a security guard.

We'll no doubt find out more in the coming days about exactly what happened there, but what seems clear is that a job that might strike many of us as boring can, in a heartbeat, become anything but.

We tend to lump all security guards together. The industry prefers the title security officer, actually, and the jobs these officers do are varied. Some officers are uniformed receptionists -- armed with a badge but no gun, calling up to tell us our meeting participant has arrived. Some poke through our purses with a wooden stick before allowing us into the gallery. Some have guns as deadly-looking as anything you'd see on an Army post. Some guard Army posts.

Some of the jobs pay well. Others, not so much. But no matter the pay, there's a certain risk that comes with the gig: You have a uniform and some authority. One day at work, you might find yourself standing between a bad person and what that bad person wants.

Forgotten soldiers of an invisible empire -- that's what one person in the security world calls them. (Chris Hertig, who teaches criminal justice at York College in Pennsylvania.)

Grandiose? Maybe not.

"You wouldn't think of them as being in a dangerous position, but they can be the first line, if you will, between people with bad intentions and other folks," Kevin Sandkuhler told me yesterday. He's president and chief executive of Pinkerton Government Services of Springfield, which provides guards for places such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon.

Said Kevin: "In Washington, D.C., I think we're all numb to the presence of security officers. You see them in every building. You see them on the street corner. You see them in parking facilities. . . . I think most of the time people are quick to complain about a security officer not being as quick or efficient as they want them to be, rather than thinking of the purpose they serve or the part they play in protecting [us]."

The last year has seen two movies about security officers, neither film what you'd call an homage to an honorable profession. There was "Paul Blart: Mall Cop" and then "Observe and Report."

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