Guards left to fight vicious cycle of crime
Leader Security canine handler Brad Paul with his dog. Photo: Colleen Petch
Canberra's security industry has expanded ''massively'' in recent years, raising concerns that private guards are fighting crime without any extra legal powers or protections.
ACT security guard licence-holders now outnumber police officers by three to one, according to government figures.
The number of licences issued or held in the ACT has soared by almost 70 per cent in eight years, from 1393 in 2003-04 to 2337 in 2011-12.
By comparison, ACT Policing had 740 sworn officers in July last year.
The growth of private security is a national phenomenon, with a 2009 study by the Australian Institute of Criminology study showing security guards outnumbered police two-to-one across the nation.
That is a dramatic turnaround from a decade earlier, when police outnumbered security guards.
The growth of the industry has put private security guards increasingly on the frontline for many crime types, responding to reports of vandalism, break and enters, theft and trespass.
Leader Security, an emerging, small but technologically savvy ACT security company, says its guards and technology have directly resulted in police arresting 400 individuals in the past 18 months.
Canine handler Brad Paul, for example, has alone helped detain and hold 65 alleged criminals until police arrest since January.
The company now uses a DNA spray to ''mark'' alleged offenders involved in aggravated robberies, employs thermal imaging cameras to catch potential criminals, and has four rapid response canine teams to respond to security breaches across Canberra.
Security guards can be licensed to carry guns and expandable batons, although it is illegal for them to use capsicum spray.
But as the private security industry grows and takes over increasing responsibility for some minor crime types, there are concerns that guards are being left to deal with criminals without any proper legal power.
University of South Australia Professor Rick Sarre, who has studied the Australian security industry extensively, said guards currently have no more right to use force, question or detain an individual than the average citizen.
''There are no laws, there's basically no legislation,'' Professor Sarre said.
''All the law is based around citizen's arrest … the private security officer has no more responsibilities or powers than a private citizen protecting their property,'' he said.
That lack of legal basis makes working in the industry extremely ''hazardous'', and leaves guards open to being sued in the course of their duties, Leader Security general manager Troy Cassell said.
Mr Cassell said the surging growth of the industry better allowed police to focus on more serious crimes. ''Police resources are stretched as it is, and their time is better utilised in protecting the public in other ways,'' he said.
''It's more cost-effective for us to be doing the groundwork, and then calling on their services when we have confirmed activity or a confirmed incident.''
Mr Cassell believes the expansion of the private security industry has largely been driven by the public's increased exposure to crime and security threats through the media.
''I think a lot of it has to do with, we're entering the digital age … and nowadays the news follows everybody,'' Mr Cassell said.
''People don't feel as safe as they used to.''
The security industry is regulated by the Office of Regulatory Services, and Professor Sarre said the ''dark side'' of rogue operators and unlicensed security guards had largely disappeared.
Professor Sarre said governments need to tackle the difficult and unappealing task of reforming legal powers for the security industry.
''They're not only taking over [police] roles, but in some instances sharing the roles,'' he said.
''In West Australia, for example, the remote police stations are now manned by private security guards.''
''Doing the same sorts of things and having different powers and immunities just doesn't make sense.''