Last March 14, a private armed security guard at a McDonald carryout in Northeast Washington shot and wounded a teenager and a man after he mistakenly thought one of them had pulled a gun on him.
Four weeks ago, another private security guard was charged with fatally shooting another guard while both were on duty at the Waterside shopping mall in Southwest Washington.
These are other similar incidents in recent months have raised questions among some city officials about the qualifications and reliability of private-contract security guards, the so-called "rent-a-cops" that have proliferated in this security-conscious city.
Many are armed and have police powers of arrest. Yet, critics say, the District government imposes loose qualifications and requires only limited training for an applicant to become a full-fledged "special policeman" and strap on a gun. Because of this, one city licensing official said, the District has become "a seeding ground" for private security firms. Already, there are 136 firms hiring armed and unarmed guards in the city and an average of one new firm a week applies for a license, the official said.
Some private armed guards lack proper training in handling weapons, said one licensing official, who asked not to be identified. One private security firm owner acknowledged that he prefers to deal only with unarmed guards because "there are not enough people qualified to carry weapons. Every now and then, we luck up and get a good guy, someone who knows how to handle a gun, but not often."
D.C. City Council Member Betty Ann Kane (D-at large) has introduced a bill to allow D.C. police department officers to work in their off-duty hours as private contract security guards to inject better trained personnel into the rent-a-cop industry -- a measure already in effect in several suburban jurisdiction here.
Also, Kane said, "I think it would be a good idea to look at the whole area of private security firms and what is required [to become a security guard]."
The quality of private secuirity guards has also aroused concern on Capitol Hill. "I just don't think rent-a-cops make sense [on federal property]," says Rep. Herbert E. Harris (D-Va.). "If the service is needed on a continuing basis, they should be full time employes whose training and experience are known entities. Otherwise, we take a tremendous risk with the people put in uniform."
Harris has introduced a bill to limit private-guard contracting in the federal government and provide instead for the hiring of more federal employes to do the work. The bill is pending in the House Rules Committee.
He said in many cases the private guards lack training and experience to provide adequate security. "I have had reports of too many individual cases of crimes where the contract guard was nowhere to be found," Harris said.
In the District, when a person applies as a guard for a private security firm, he must report to the city's Security Officers Management Branch at 614 H St. NW, to be licensed. There, he presents a doctor's certificate, his fingerprints and three photographs of himself. He must also provide a current pistol qualification certification showing that he underwent and "passed" training on a firing range. D.C. police department officers conduct a background check on the applicant to determine if he has a criminal record. If he has been convicted of a felony, he is not allowed to carry a gun in the District.
Guards employed by private security firms that deal exclusively with the federal government do not have to be licensed by the city. Only the firms must be licensed and a background check run on their officials.
The two private guards involved in the shooting four weeks ago were employed by the Washington Patrol Service, which is licensed by the city. But since the firm deals exclusively in federal contracts, the two guards were not required to be licensed by the city.
Roger Stewart, a spokesman for the federal government's General Services Administration, said the contract with Washington Patrol Service requires the security firm to provide each guard with 20 hours of firearms training and 40 hours in other basic courses such as constitutional law, report writing, human relations, courtroom demeanor and self-defense.
Stewart said no action has been taken against Washington Patrol Service because the shooting was not a violation of the contract. "You can't cure this in contracts," he said. "You can't say your security guards will not shoot each other."
According to D.C. police, guard Barthaniel Robinson, who had been working for the Washington Patrol Service for seven months, shot James Kenneth Tate, another guard, while they both were on duty at the Environmental Protection Agency at 401 M St. SW. Robinson has been charged with manslaughter. Police said they have not established a motive in the Oct. 7 shooting.
According to EPA employes who were first on the scene after the shooting, Robinson, 25, kenlt over Tate, 27, and gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation but was unable to revive him.
An official of the Washington Patrol Service declined to give details on the shooting. "It's just a bad thing that happened," said Shields Dorsett, vice president of the firm.
Robinson's lawyer, Thomas Abbenante, said the shooting was accidental. He said the two men were friends and were planning to share an apartment.
Some private firm officials say that shootings involving private guards often occur because of immaturity and carelessness. "Just because a person qualifies [on the firing range] with the weapon doesn't mean he has the temperament to handle a weapon," said one official who asked not to be identified.
"Sometimes I go into a building and see them [armed security guards] laughing and talking among themselves and their guns are sticking [unstrapped] out of their holster," said Tommy Tague, who heads security at the National Press Building. "Someone could walk up and grab it [the gun]."
Tague, an ex-D.C. policeman who heads the D.C. chapter of the Fraternal Order of Police, said when he took over security at the National Press Building he fired the eight unarmed guards who were contracted with a private firm and hired eight retired police officers in their place because he felt they could do a better job. "All the retired police officers are experienced. They know what they are doing." His security guards are unarmed, he said.
Low wages paid by some private firms often draw underqualified and marginally qualified applicants, city and security firm officials acknowledge.According to an official at a large area private security firm, guards who work for companies that have contracts with the federal government generally are paid about $5 an hour, substantially more than the $3.75 hourly pay some private security guards get elsewhere in the city.
According to D.C. officials there are about 4,000 private security guards who are licensed to carry weapons in the city. Another 3,000 are licensed as unarmed guards. Armed guards in the District are referred to as "special police officers," while unarmed guards are called "security guards."
Officials say some security guards prefer to be armed because then they have the authority of a police officer. An unarmed security guard has only the power of citizen's arrest. One official said."You run into morale problems when you talk about disarming them."