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Opinion: Guarding in a post-compliant society

NZ Security Magazine, Dec 17/Jan 18

The sad fact is that people have become increasingly feral towards security officersThe sad fact is that people have become increasingly feral towards security officers


Lincoln Potter PSP argues that guarding ain’t what it used to be. Stuck between a public that seems less interested than ever in doing the right thing and a legal system that provides little enforcement legitimacy, front line security officers are faced with an increasingly impossible – and hapless – task.


Security personnel, security companies and stakeholders are finding it increasingly difficult to supply services that achieve a reasonable outcome when dealing with members of the public in difficult or conflict situations.

Take the 27 October brawl between customers at Pak ‘n’ Save’s Mangere store in Auckland for instance. Store security bravely stepped in to break up a fight between several men that seemed to erupt out of nowhere in the aisles of the supermarket as shoppers looked on from behind their trolleys in shock.

And what about the countless incidents in which guards are indeed the target of violence? It’s not just high-tension environments like hospitals, mental health facilities, courts and prisons where guards can expect verbal and physical abuse – and are having to armour-up accordingly.

Whether trespassing, excluding or removing, dealing with disorderly behavior and breaches of the peace, breaking up fights, apprehending shoplifters, recovering stolen items, bag searching and controlling access, it’s more likely than ever that a guard will cop an earful or a king hit. And it’s just as likely to happen in a shopping mall on high street as it is outside a pub at 3am or on a site in the industrial badlands.

Achieving resolution in escalating situations involving a member of the public who is not in the least interested in anything a guard has to say has become extremely problematic, and mitigating the risks to staff and companies, whether it is HSE or civil litigation, has become a huge concern to industry.


Was it always like this?

No, it wasn’t. In my retail experience, I apprehended some 473 shoplifters. Other officers I worked with were catching upwards of 700 in a year. This was in the early nineties; there rarely were any fights or instances of verbal abuse, and we had a high success rate in recovering goods.

Successful resolution of other offences was also high – and with minimal conflict. Industry and stakeholders were happy with the level of service being provided. Were we better trained? Did we have any specific skill set that enabled us to achieve this? What has changed?

Security officers have no special powers and the acts of law that support us are very weak. The key skill of officers thus lies in their ability to get people to acquiesce, ie. “the reluctant acceptance of something without protest.”

The fact is that people are no longer naturally prone to acquiescence. People will not comply anymore. The one thing that we relied heavily on to do our job has gone and it’s not coming back.

People and society have changed considerably and it’s impacting on the industry and the environment in which our guards operate.

It not about respect or civility so much, it’s about civil compliance.

Plenty of psychologists and social commentators have observed that society is getting less civil, angrier, anti-social, and less accepting of being told what to do. Politicians are less trusted than ever, teachers less respected, and security guards are regarded as lower life forms than whatever it is we were regarded as previously.

According to a Cambridge University paper, in a primitive sense, the influence that compels people to obey authority may come from the power to reward or punish. “If an individual is aware that there are definite negative outcomes for deviation and or positive outcomes for obedience, they will be inclined through personal fear to obey the will of the authority.”

In open societies like New Zealand, obedience is more or less voluntary. You can choose to follow the rules or not. Where there are rules there are often negative consequences for not following them. In the case of instructions dished out by a security guard – who has neither powers nor meaningful support in legislation – there are no real consequences for failure to comply.

Against this background, a comment made to me recently by a number of officers comes as little surprise: “we’re just customer services officers”.

We can’t achieve the level of service that we used to anymore, but I’m tired of people throwing rocks at the industry and critics saying it’s a training issue. It’s not the fault of the Industry that this has happened, and there is nothing that can be done about it. The sad fact is that people have become increasingly feral towards security officers.


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The mandatory training Unit Standard 27364 is big on communication, providing officers with better skills in dealing with people, health and safety, keeping yourself and others safe, and conflict management.  It’s training that wasn’t available in my day.

I certainly see the benefit of it, as did many of my students when I was teaching it.

However, from experience you can only take this training so far. If a person is not going to comply with your instructions there’s no longer anything you can do to change their mind. Persisting will only aggravate the situation!

Generally speaking (dependent on company procedures), guards are advised to avoid conflict at all cost, tactically withdraw, advise comms, request back up and keep themselves and the public safe until police arrive.

The problem is that no one has told the end users about this, and this is causing confusion and criticism.



End users of security services still expect us to be as effective as we were ten years ago, removing people, apprehending shoplifters and recovering goods, breaking up fights etc. We can’t effectively do it anymore, it causes conflict and there are HSE and civil legal issues to be considered. Many end users are not aware of this and complain “what’s the point of having security then?”

The security officer’s job is essentially to deter, deny, detect and delay, but observing and reporting is less problematic than challenging and engaging.  The human interface problem thus poses a contradiction between what a manned services security company can effectively achieve and what the end user expects out of security officers.

Ultimately, security officers are damned if they do, and damned if they don’t. In the case of a fight in public – the Pak ‘n’ Save example – if the officer steps in to break it up, he/she runs the risk of breaking standard operating procedures, provoking company disciplinary action, getting injured or having to resort to unreasonable force which could land them in court.

Then there are the social media implications, as we’ve all seen on YouTube.

If the officer does not step in, he/she will still end up on social media for having stood back and done nothing about it. This goes against the grain of what a security officer is all about – security is a state or condition in which people and property are safe and adequately protected from loss damage and harm.

I spent seventeen years as a frontline security officer. I couldn’t go back to it, the rock and a hard place of being a guard today would drive me nuts. But the industry is not to blame for this.


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