Fear Factor: Vancouver crime and the private security industry

The Vancouver Police Department is stretched to the limit, leaving room for a growing private-security army to patrol downtown

The Vancouver Police Department is stretched to the limit, leaving room for a growing private-security army to patrol downtown

It’s 2:45 p.m. and we’re sitting in the heart of Vancouver’s shame. At a bench on the corner of Victory Square, a pair of drug dealers slouch, chatting on their cellphones. A gangly guy with a bushy salt-and-pepper beard cuts through the park carrying a large shiny bag full of booty, presumably headed for one of the seedy pawnshops in East Van. No doubt about it, he’s a booster (street lingo for a shoplifter).

A conspicuously clean-cut white guy with thick, gelled hair is heading toward Pender Street when he abruptly alters course after spotting Dylan Goertzen and his partner Paulo Mota, the duo I’m shadowing this evening.

“That’s Michael. He’s addicted to crack and he’s a chronic shoplifter,” says Goertzen, reducing the details of the man’s life to a pathetic one-sentence bio.


Michael disappears into an alley, shoulder-checking nervously.

On the corner of Hastings and Cambie streets, another emaciated male exhibits the jerky spasmodic contractions of someone in the throws of cocaine psychosis. He sips on an extra large 7-11 cup and dips constantly in and out of the alley between Cambie and Abbott streets to cut crack deals behind a dumpster. Two of his customers, sad, greying 50-somethings, emerge from the alley. They park it on a retaining wall in the middle of the square and spark up a crack pipe. Less than 10 metres away, a well-dressed woman sits on a bench and obliviously taps away on a laptop – or perhaps she is simply resigned to this carnival of corruption in downtown Vancouver. In 15 minutes, Goertzen, 30, and 28-year-old Mota have identified at least a half-dozen people by first and last names, mostly drug- and alcohol-addicted thieves on the perpetual treadmill of chronic repeat offending.

3:05 p.m.: Along comes Clint.

“This guy’s sneaky. He waits at the back entrance of stores for an employee to open the door to dump some garbage, and then he slips inside when they’re not looking,” Goertzen says. Clint is no Pink Panther. Dishevelled, unshaven and cagey, he’s about as subtle as a bagpiper at a yoga retreat. Still, he gets away with it, time and time again. Clint unabashedly, or unknowingly, walks directly up to Goertzen.

“Wanna buy some wine?” he inquires, opening a duffel bag containing at least $200 worth of red.Goertzen peers inside.

“No thanks, man. My girlfriend only drinks white,” he says.

No chance for commerce here. Clint zips the bag and strikes toward the alley where the spasmodic crack dealer is uncontrollably waving his arms around and selling more crack behind the dumpster.

3:10 p.m.: Goertzen and Mota switch into active surveillance mode, then make a call to the District 2 dispatcher at the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) to report a suspect in possession of a bag of stolen property. Mota is put on indefinite hold by the dispatcher as Clint heads east and out of their beat. Goertzen and Mota observe him for a few minutes then, shrugging their shoulders, decide to drop it. Clint vanishes with his wine.

It would take a veritable army of people to tag, monitor and trail the dealings of these seedy characters and the numerous petty and more serious offenses that occur on an average day in downtown Vancouver. Goertzen and Mota, with their earpieces, intimate knowledge of Vancouver’s gritty street life and CSI-type jargon, seem like your typical undercover cops. Except they’re not. They’re loss-prevention officers working for Genesis Security Group under contract to the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA), and their beat is a bustling 90-square-block area that’s home to some 8,000 businesses. They’re part of a growing private-security army that has become a fixture of modern society, a parallel security force that we tend to take for granted but don’t necessarily understand.

The private security industry is booming in B.C. Its foot soldiers are everywhere, and for the most part it’s far from glamorous work – riding mountain bikes around Granville Island, keeping a lonely midnight vigil over desolate industrial parks, working the nightclub doors and going nose-to-nose with intoxicated patrons, monitoring closed-circuit TV from windowless rooms, sniffing out insurance fraud and unearthing evidence for civil litigation. They could be the guys and gals in the bright banana-yellow jackets or dressed, like Goertzen and Mota, as skater kids, carrying out covert surveillance in the downtown core while you and I go about our daily business.[pagebreak]

A 2002 report by the auditor general of Canada estimates that in 1996 there were roughly 59,000 sworn-in peace officers in the country, compared with 90,000 front-line private-security workers. B.C. has witnessed huge growth in the sector, with roughly 1,200 businesses involved in some aspect of security. In 1991 we had a mere 4,804 licensed security workers. By 2005 that number, boosted partly by new licensing requirements, had ballooned to 11,684, greatly outnumbering the public police force, which currently sits at 7,678 members. And most observers believe that when you include unlicensed security personnel, such as in-house floorwalkers cruising through department stores or bar door staff, police officers are outnumbered by a factor of two to one. And this ratio is only expected to spike with the Olympics, when private firms will line up at the 2010 trough and take on the mundane but necessary details of site security and crowd control.

There are no accurate dollar figures on what the security industry is worth in the province; however, considering that the auditor general conservatively estimates that salaries in the sector across Canada may top $2.2 billion annually, suffice to say it’s worth hundreds of millions of dollars to the economy here at home. There are multiple reasons for this expanding private-security sector. Public perceptions of out-of-control crime certainly play a part. A recent rash of gang-style slayings in the Lower Mainland have put the city on edge. The physical character and design of our cities has changed vastly since the 1950s with the proliferation of large spaces such as shopping malls, industrial parks and concert venues that are privately owned but used by the public. Add a perpetually over-burdened police force, and the conditions are ripe for an increasing reliance on private security.

As the sector grows in B.C., the public, civil-liberty watchdogs and, indeed, our government are starting to take a closer look at this industry and the role it plays in public safety.

private security industry in vancouver

3:34 p.m.: Goertzen and Mota leave Victory Square and its diurnal inhabitants to their dismal routines. Next stop is Pacific Centre mall, another prime urban habitat for shoplifters. Streams of afternoon consumers amble through the climate-controlled space. Inevitably there will be opportunistic thieves among them, and they’re not always true to the stereotype, like shifty, downtrodden Clint. Goertzen recalls apprehending a guy in a business suit attempting to purloin a watch. “Just some businessman down on his luck,” Goertzen says.

If private security continues to grow, the DVBIA’s loss-prevention program might be a model of what the future holds. It began in 2000 and costs $280,000 a year, a bill paid for by association members as part of their business-improvement levy. At the outset, Goertzen, who moonlights as a movie stuntman, admits that some police tacitly regarded the loss-prevention officers as a gang of low-budget rent-a-cops. However, Goertzen feels they’ve earned some respect. Dave Jones, a 30-year veteran of the VPD and now a security consultant for the DVBIA, is one of the security team’s loudest cheerleaders. He views the loss-prevention program as a legitimate facet of crime prevention in downtown Vancouver, one filling the gap left by a public force that’s already stretched for manpower and resources.

The math also speaks loudly. It costs, on average, $83,240 a year in salary and benefits to keep a VPD constable in uniform, and that doesn’t include overhead, equipment and vehicles. Conversely, private security personnel tasked with sitting in a car for the dreary graveyard shift and monitoring, say, an industrial park or gated community can earn as little as $20,000, at $10 an hour.

vancouver crime

Even the Genesis guards contracted by the DVBIA who assist in frequent arrests, deal with drug addicts who may have needles in their pockets, and face the ever-present threat of violence make $15 an hour. Not exactly a windfall, considering the potential risks, but on the upside, Jones says, experience in private security can be an ideal springboard for people wanting a career in law enforcement.

“We have six people who are responsible for as many as 500 or 600 arrests per year,” Jones says. “We’ve set some behavioural standards about how people conduct themselves down here, and I think we’ve had some great success.”[pagebreak]Both Jones and VPD spokesperson Constable Howard Chow cite a recent case when co-operation between police and private security helped to quickly solve a serious crime. Last August security cameras captured the brazen assault and robbery of a Vancouver senior as he exited the foyer of Holy Rosary Cathedral. When the VPD distributed a photograph, loss-prevention officer Mota immediately recognized the suspect, a 43-year-old man known by locals as an aggressive panhandler. The following day, Mota led police directly to the spot where the individual frequently loitered and authorities moved in for the arrest.

If you could rank the sexiness of private-security jobs, the DVBIA’s loss-prevention program would be off the charts in comparison to the bulk of the work, which at its best is generally anonymous and low-key and, some might say, predictably dull. And that’s just how Darcy Kernaghan, CEO and founder of Securiguard Services Ltd., likes it. One of the largest private security firms in the province, with 1,200 employees, Securiguard got its start more than 30 years ago when the security industry was still in its infancy. Kernaghan’s father, then a private investigator, opened a branch of his company to provide security for the mining industry in Northern B.C. Securiguard was born and, in the ensuing years, has spread its business throughout Western Canada and overseas.

“I’ve seen this business grow in step with the growth of the city,” says Kernaghan, who is also president of the B.C. chapter of the Association of Professional Security Agencies, over the phone from his downtown Vancouver office.

And he doesn’t predict growth slowing down anytime soon. The burgeoning office- and condo-tower landscape of False Creek, high-tech industrial parks, gated residential communities and other large-scale privately owned commercial properties all come with their own private-security needs. Kernaghan also has his eye on the Olympics.

“We get involved to provide a safe and secure environment. Are we there to catch bank robbers? No, we’re there to deter bank robbers,” Kernaghan says bluntly when asked about the nature of his business. Kernaghan avoids the kind of hands-on security that Genesis provides the DVBIA simply because it too closely resembles police work; there’s too much potential for physical conflict, he says.

“You’re dealing with potentially volatile people, and there’s a higher chance of having to use force,” Kernaghan says. “We stay away from that kind of work. Ninety-five per cent of our business involves customer service. We don’t deal with nightclubs or anything that involves booze.”

The biggest challenge Securiguard currently faces is staffing; in today’s competitive job market, enticing applicants to low-paying, entry-level security jobs isn’t easy. Securiguard’s employees are licensed and, in theory, accountable. But there’s another side of the security industry – the unlicensed one – that we know very little about. Like the uniformed operatives working at Lougheed Town Centre.

Claude Lalande manages security for 20 Vic Management Inc., the firm that operates Burnaby’s Lougheed Town Centre. He oversees an extensive in-house security program, which involves not only training in first aid and customer service, but also in arrest, handcuffing and self-defense techniques. Sounds a lot like a private police force. Though he refuses to divulge Lougheed Town Centre’s annual security budget, Lalande says it’s an accepted cost of doing business for large private-property owners in the city.

“Studies have shown a definite increase in private security to address the void created by a lack of police presence,” Lalande tells BCBusiness in an email. “This has caused industry to rethink security and to provide a presence where needed, hence an increase in the numbers of security personnel. Today property crime is at a high. The price of metals, as an example, has led to an increase in the theft of metals.”

Vancouver’s mounting reputation as a city rampant with gun violence has, not surprisingly, resulted in a boom in demand for the services of private security companies. After the high-profile murder of Hong Chao Huang in front of his Shaughnessy home last November, Provident Security and Event Management Corp. reported a spike in inquiries about home security systems for which people are paying anywhere from $2,000 to well over $100,000. Company president Michael Jagger told a Vancouver Sun reporter that he expected his company’s 2007 revenues to increase by 50 per cent over the previous year.

3:45 p.m.: Goertzen and Mota are strolling through the Pacific Centre mall. Goertzen notices a diminutive, slump-shouldered guy standing in front of the Sony Store window, catatonically fixated on a 36-inch flat-screen TV flashing images of a drag race.

“He just got out of prison. See those Velcro shoes and grey sweats? That’s standard prison issue,” Goertzen remarks. [pagebreak]A few blocks from Pacific Centre, Henry Lee sits in his office at Tom Lee Music musing about crime and punishment. As a downtown business owner, he pays into the DVBIA security program. As a Granville Street merchant, he deals with vomit on the sidewalk, and panhandlers and dealers disturbing shoppers, not to mention chronic shoplifting and theft – the kind of garden-variety social and criminal issues that public police are simply too overwhelmed to deal with and that public-policy makers are too bereft of imagination and ideas to solve. It’s a reality of doing business downtown. Lee estimates the store loses roughly $100,000 of merchandise a year to shoplifters and break-and-enters, and he spends the same annually on his own in-house security.

Loss prevention officers in Vancouver

“It’s one part of the solution,” Lee says of the DVBIA’s loss-prevention program. “Having those guys out there deters people from being opportunistic. But let’s face it, we have a very weak jelly-bone judiciary system, and a lot of the people who steal from our store I see over and over again.”

He adds that the amount he spends on his own in-house security, the DVBIA security program and the losses from theft all add up to a huge drag on the economy. “Any kind of extra taxation troubles a business owner. The police are doing their job but the judicial system isn’t doing its job.”

The DVBIA program is necessary to fill a gap, he says. “In a better world, the money we pay to the DVBIA for security could be used for other things like marketing.”

Dean Milner, district manager for ECO Outdoor Sports, says that having loss-prevention officers out there on the street who are familiar with his staff enables them to coordinate their efforts in identifying the chronic offenders.

“We’ve had some success in stopping shoplifting, but the problem is [loss-prevention officers] can’t be everywhere at once,” Milner says.

While merchants and property owners increasingly turn to private security to fight theft and secure their premises, questions have started to surface around just who and what this somewhat shadowy security force is, and how to control it. Most of the questions and concerns can be distilled down to some fundamentals around law, accountability and the difference between private and public property.

downtown Vancouver business improvement association

On the one hand, public peace officers who are employed by the government to enforce the criminal code are governed by federal and provincial statutes and are, at least in theory, accountable to the public for their actions. On the other hand, private security services are employed by corporations or individuals to enforce private-property laws and are accountable to their employers. So when a property owner delegates his rights to a private security company and that gets projected into the urban landscape where the lines between public and private property are increasingly fuzzy, problems can arise. What’s interesting is that although private security guards may sometimes look and act like cops, they have no more law-enforcement power than you and I – solely the power of citizen arrest.

Private security falls under the bailiwick of the B.C. Ministry of Public Safety and Solicitor General. Security companies and personnel, including security patrols, armoured-car companies, private investigators, locksmiths, security consultants and security-alarm providers, are licensed and monitored through the ministry’s Security Programs and Police Technology Division. In order to obtain a licence, an employee must take a Basic Standards Training course offered either through the Justice Institute of B.C. or an organization that has been sanctioned by the institute. The two-part course covers everything from law and professionalism to the hows, whys and whens of using force. However, the course is designed to be exactly what its title suggests: basic.

“This is meant to be a very, very basic course with the assumption that individual companies will follow up with their own training,” says Karen English, the Justice Institute’s coordinator of security programs.

One thing is clear: issues around conduct, misrepresentation and use of force by private security are starting to surface. In 2006 inspectors with the Security Programs and Police Technology Division responded to 214 complaints against private-security workers and issued 63 violation tickets, mostly for individuals working without a valid licence. Constable Howard Chow of the VPD is careful when discussing private security. He says it can provide valuable assistance to police in terms of gathering intelligence and information, witnessing crimes and helping locate suspects, but adds that an overzealous security guard can turn a routine call into a time-consuming mess.”They’re like having an extra set of eyes and ears on the streets,” Chow says. “But when a rogue employee oversteps their bounds, we end up having to unravel a situation that shouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

Events escalated beyond control in the spring of 2001 when an East Vancouver resident ran afoul of private security at the International Village, which houses the Cinemark Tinseltown theatre. In a file that wound up before the B.C. Human Rights Tribunal, Gladys Radek, an aboriginal woman with a physical disability, alleged that she had been singled out by a security guard for discriminatory treatment in what was the latest in a pattern of discrimination she had experienced previously at the mall. In its landmark July 2005 decision, the tribunal agreed with Radek, writing that being “singled out for treatment… because of one’s race or disability, or a combination of these factors, constitutes a clear violation of the human dignity of all those affected.”

crime prevention in vancouver

More recently, the conduct of private security surfaced at Vancouver City Council in a debate over the use of guard dogs by security companies to protect private property. Turns out some of these security hounds were overstepping their bounds and occasionally hassling people on public property. The city responded with a bylaw prohibiting private security dogs from patrolling streets and public places, interfering with police and emergency incidents, and chasing or guarding suspects on public property. [pagebreak]4:05 p.m.: Mota has keyed in on a suspicious-looking patron entering Shoppers Drug Mart with a paper gift bag, the kind with handles. Once again the pair drops into surveillance mode, and a cat-and-mouse game ensues. Even if they were permitted by law to use restraining devices, undercover private-security agents Goertzen and Mota wouldn’t need them today. After tagging their suspect through the store and peering clandestinely through shelves, they observe the crime and nab the suspect without incident as she tries to exit onto the corner of Dunsmuir and Howe streets.

In the privacy of the downstairs stockroom at Shoppers Drug Mart they question the suspect, Alison. The mood is awkward, just as you’d expect when somebody has been caught in possession of the proverbial smoking gun. Alison wears velour pants, a torn winter coat, a heavy silver chain around her neck and brand-new-looking sneakers. The sum total of stolen goods in her bag: a $9 bottle of shampoo.

“Why did you steal the shampoo?” Goertzen asks quietly.

Alison cowers as she sits on a cardboard box. The humiliation is written in her downcast eyes, but clearly it’s not the first time she’s been busted.”Please don’t arrest me. I got beat up by my boyfriend last night. I’m pregnant, I want to go home,” she says.

It’s a tragic litany of truths, half-truths and outright lies, offered up as some sort of justification. Goertzen has heard them all before. “Don’t worry. We’re not going to arrest you,” he says. “Have you been using?”

“I’ve been clean for weeks but I just took some Valium so I’m a little spaced out,” Alison replies, now looking more relaxed.

Goertzen is soft-spoken, treating Alison with dignity and respect. After all, there is a journalist present. But judging by his demeanour, there is no reason to suspect he would act otherwise under different circumstances. While he calms Alison, Mota dials the VPD dispatch on his cell phone and runs an arrest-warrant check. No warrants, but predictably a rap sheet as long as her forearm. Today stealing a $9 bottle of shampoo nets her a ban of indeterminate length from the store. The restriction has no legal clout; it’s simply a ban administered on behalf of the store. Alison is free to go with a warning, delivered by Goertzen like a father admonishing a kid who’s been suspended from school.

5:35 p.m.: Goertzen and Mota are patrolling a small crescent beneath the north end of the Granville Street Bridge. Shards of glass crunch under their feet, evidence that this is an active area for auto break-ins and thefts. It makes sense, secluded as it is from the bustle of Granville Street only metres away. We circle back onto Drake Street just in time to witness a burly, tattooed man, who looks like an over-the-hill heavyweight, stumble out the side door of the Cecil Hotel and vomit onto the sidewalk.

“Nice,” says Goertzen, grimacing. “I guess we’ll walk on the other side of the street.”

Goertzen and Mota slip back into the stream of pedestrians on Granville, past the pizza-by-the-slice vendors, leather clothing stores and used CD shops.

“She’s a booster,” Goertzen tells me, gesturing at a girl in her early 20s who has glided past in a barely concealing miniskirt. She’s one more character in the cast of downtown Vancouver’s reality drama who Goertzen and Mota make it their business to know. Like it or not, as our cities grow, chances are we’re going to see more, not fewer, covert operatives like these two plainclothes sleuths on our streets, parks and other public spaces. Security contractors love it, civil libertarians fear it, much of the public accepts it as a necessary evil, and now government must figure out how best to regulate this burgeoning private security force.

Listen to the Interview with Andrew Findlay to know more about this topic. Go to Editor’s Podcast Series here