Private police, or commonly known as special police officers, have almost the same amount of power as public police. But a study shows that one-third of them nationwide face no regulation and still lack training.

Beverly Smith stood outside the Marbury Plaza apartment complex in southeast Washington where her son died. It was 7 p.m. on a crisp, clear autumn night. Smith was wearing what had become her everyday wardrobe: a white shirt with a picture of her son, smiling, with printed angel wings. On top of the picture, blue letters read: “#Justice4Zo.” Emblem pins with pictures of her friends’ sons and daughters, who had lost their lives at the hands of police officers, also adorned her shirt. She always wears the same shirt and pins whenever she attends rallies or protests.

Smith was about to hold a candlelight vigil to mark the one-year anniversary of her son, Alonzo Smith, who died while in the custody of the apartment’s security officers in November of last year. He was found lying on the stairwell in one of the apartment buildings: handcuffed, unconscious, shirtless and shoeless, with one of the security officer’s knees on his back. Alonzo was then taken to a nearby hospital, and was later pronounced dead.

The officers who were involved in his death are neither regular police nor security guards. They are private police, commonly referred to as special police officers. They are licensed by the city and work for private security agencies. Unlike ordinary security guards, special police officers can carry guns and arrest people. But despite the fact that these special police officers have almost the same amount of power as public police, a 2012 study from a University of Alabama School of Law assistant professor found that private police are “chronically undertrained”, and that many state laws “inadequately regulate private police.”

“I feel I would better just die, in hopelessness and despair, if I am silent on what happened to my son,” Smith said. “By me speaking out, telling my story over and over again, although it saddens me, it empowers me, to let the world know who he was and the injustice that was done to him.”

Beverly Smith reads a poem titled “After Life” written by her son, Alonzo Smith, who died while in the custody of special police officers in southeast Washington, D.C. in November 2015. 

The autopsy report stated that the cause of death was “sudden cardiac death complicating acute cocaine toxicity while restrained,” and that the secondary cause was compression. The city’s medical examiner also determined that Alonzo’s death was a homicide. Smith fervently believes that her son, who was unarmed at the time of his arrest, was a victim of excessive use of force by the security officers.

Smith said that when the police released her son’s body seven days after his death, she found massive bruises on his upper body. “There were hemorrhages to the right side of my son’s neck, at his C2 vertebrae, and on his back,” she said. “When I saw my son in the coffin, I could also see his right eye and jaw swollen.” Smith also recalled that Alonzo’s entire neck was damaged “to the point that people at his funeral questioned, ‘What happened to his neck?’” She said that the funeral director could not even properly set her son’s head straight due to the swelling.

The death of 27-year-old Alonzo Smith, who was a teacher for disabled children at Accotink Academy, Virginia has brought private police conduct into the spotlight. Nonetheless, little data exists regarding special police officers’ use or overuse of serious force, or about how many times special police officers use excessive force while on duty. Currently, there’s no law requiring security agencies for whom these officers work, to keep track of it.

Special police officers only have to report firearm releases to their employer, but they are not required to report other usages of force in detail, such as physical force used to control a person while making an arrest. Even if they keep track of it, they aren’t obligated to respond to public records requests for reports, since these officers work for private companies.

While there are times when special police officers protect civilians and save lives, there have also been instances of misconduct. In 2005, a special police officer in D.C. was convicted of a felony after carrying out an armed robbery using the weapon issued by his security company. Other incidents involving private police misconduct have also occurred in Maryland. In 2012, residents of Cherry Hill, a neighborhood in Baltimore, filed a lawsuit against a Cleveland security company. They claimed that the company’s special police officers had violated their civil rights by stopping them illegally and making unjustified arrests.

In addition to Alonzo Smith’s case, there has been another high-profile incident of a similar nature involving special police officers killing an unarmed citizen. James McBride, who was a MedStar Washington Hospital Center patient, died in September 2015 after having a confrontation with two special police officers near the hospital. The police report stated the 74-year-old man had suffered a broken vertebrae during the dispute with the officers after he left the facility without having been discharged. He was pronounced dead two days later. The officers were consequently indicted with involuntary manslaughter in less than four months.

Hearing about McBride’s case, Smith hoped that the special police officers who were involved in her son’s death would also be charged. For almost a year, she waited in agony for the grand jury’s decision. Then, on October 13, the U.S. Attorney’s office for the District of Columbia announced there would be no indictment in Alonzo’s death, meaning that his death was a justifiable homicide. Prosecutors said that they couldn’t find any signs of criminal intent in the circumstances that led to Alonzo’s death, and that the special police officers would not be charged due to the lack of witnesses and evidence.

After an hour-long meeting with the assistant prosecutor attorney and the investigators from the Metropolitan Police Department’s internal affairs unit, Smith tried to maintain her composure as she faced reporters waiting outside the Department of Justice building. She told them that the prosecutor and the grand jury had continually neglected to discuss the secondary cause of her son’s death: the compression of the torso.

After almost a year waiting in agony for the grand jury’s decision, on October 13, 2016, Beverly Smith heard that the special police officers who were involved in her son’s death would not be charged. 

Smith also mentioned that after her son’s death, former D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier watched the body camera videos released by the MPD. Chief Lanier told the press that the knee-in-back tactic used to restrain him was not a method that they used in training their police officers. “There wasn’t any cause to use the tactic of knee in back, and you already had him handcuffed. For what reason? He did not commit a crime, he did not have any weapons on him,” she said.

Smith felt that all of her efforts had been in vain. She couldn’t remember how many times she had spoken to the media and the public about her son’s injuries, the wounds he suffered, and that the cocaine in her son’s system didn’t negate the fact his death was caused by another human being. Every time she spoke about all of these things, she felt tormented. “I could understand if you couldn’t prove first-degree murder,” she said. “But what about the lesser charge like manslaughter because there was definitely a negligence?”

What disappointed her even more was that the prosecutors refused to release the names of the special police officers who killed her son, and Smith still has no clue about what really happened. There were no witnesses to what kind of confrontation Alonzo and the special police officers had prior to the MPD’s arrival at the scene.  Why he was stopped and apprehended in the first place also remains unclear. All she knows is that the special police officer stopped her son because he was allegedly acting bizarre, running and yelling.

When MPD began its investigation, several residents of the Marbury Plaza apartment were summoned to court, including Geno Dunnington, who lives on the ninth floor of one of the buildings. Dunnington recalled the moments before Alonzo was found unconscious by the MPD officers. Around 3.30 a.m. on Sunday, November 1 of last year, he stood on his balcony and saw Alonzo running in the middle of the parking lot, screaming “Help, help, someone help me, they are trying to kill me.” He saw Alonzo, wearing a white linen shirt, continuing to yell; he said that he could sense fear in his screams.

“I saw him running towards the swimming pool, coming back, then running up the steps of the last apartment building unit. He was still yelling. At that time, one special police officer walked up on the sidewalk, went into the apartment, and about five minutes later the MPD officers came up,” Dunnington said.

The body camera videos released by the MPD only show the events after the special police officers had subdued Alonzo. In the videos, he is seen already handcuffed, unconscious, and lying on the ground with his head dangling on a building stairwell. One of the special police officer’s knees is pressed against his back. The special police officer told the MPD that Alonzo was under the influence of phencyclidine, or PCP, a synthetic dissociative drug that can make people hallucinate and become extremely violent. The officer then went back outside to call for an ambulance.

After returning to the stairwell, the MPD officer put a set of handcuffs on Alonzo’s legs. That was when he realized that Alonzo was not breathing, and started trying to resuscitate him through chest compression for several minutes before emergency responders arrived. Alonzo was pronounced dead at a nearby hospital.

“You can look at the video and see that he was not moving. It is my belief that they knew at that point that my son was not breathing; that he was dead,” Smith said. “But they failed to tell MPD when they arrived.”

When MPD began its investigation, several residents of the Marbury Plaza apartment were summoned to court, including Geno Dunnington. He lives on the ninth floor of one of the buildings. 

Although the employment of special police officers’ dates back to the 19th century, the majority of the public is not fully aware of their existence in guarding and protecting properties in many states and cities. In the Civil War era, special police officers were mostly hired by private industries such as coal mining and steel manufacturers to combat labor-strikes.

The rise of private security companies peaked in the 1980s and the numbers have remained stable over 30 years. There is no information about the exact amount of special police officers nationwide, but data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show that the number of private security officers —which include private detectives, security guards, and also special police officers— has reached nearly one million. This amount almost rivals the number of public police officers employed by states and federal governments. According to a 2011 data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the total amount of public law enforcement agents was 1,001,984 officers.

Washington, D.C. is among other major cities in the U.S. that has special police officers, together with New York City, Boston, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and San Francisco. At present, D.C. has more than 100 private security companies which employ 16,580 security officers; 7,720 are special police officers and around 60 percent carry firearms. They can be hired to protect private businesses and government buildings as well.

According to a 2014 study by Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, today the boundary between public and private police has become “messy and complex.” But one can recognize the difference in the function between public police and special police officers by their jurisdiction. While police officers’ authority covers the whole city, special police officers’ authority is strictly confined to the particular place or property, which they are commissioned to protect.

However, there are certain limitations over the District’s special police officers’ authority other than their jurisdiction, for example the arrest power. Some states permit special police officers to deliver a suspect directly to the nearest judge, but D.C. laws prohibit special officers to leave the property unless in a fresh pursuit to catch suspects.

“Their arrest authority is to hold and detain a person for committing a crime in a property until MPD officers arrive,” said Helder Gil, a legislative analyst from the D.C. Deputy Mayor’s Office for Public Safety and Justice. “The arrest occurs after they’re processed at an MPD police station. So, special police can’t charge. Only police officers can. In the court, they would be like any other ordinary witness that saw what occurred.”

Every state has different laws and regulations regarding special police officers. In D.C., they have to wear a uniform with a special police badge, have to be hired by a licensed security agency, undergo training there, then be certified by the MPD’s Security Officers Management Branch and the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs. Special police officers also get fingerprinted and undergo a criminal background check and drug test. They also have to renew their license every year.

Even though special police officers are licensed by the city, Gil emphasized that they are not city employees. Therefore, it doesn’t supervise individuals who are hired as special police officers. “The city will issue a license to the security guards, but that’s just like the city issue a license to anybody that wants to be an architect, a plumber, or anybody that wants to open any other type of business,” he said.

Like public police officers, a general order released by the MPD in 1993 states that special police officers are allowed to use force on the properties they’re hired to protect. Since the city isn’t responsible for overseeing and monitoring special police officers’ conduct, Gil said the burden falls to the security companies they work for.

“Security companies are ultimately responsible for the conduct of all their employees. It’s in their interest to make sure that their employees are fully trained, and the requirements that we are putting in are just the minimums,” Gil said. He also added that “the companies can impose more hours and more specific type of training for what their role is in a specific building.”

The two special police officers involved in Alonzo Smith’s case were hired by the Marbury Plaza apartment complex to guard the property. They were from the Blackout Investigation Security Agency, a security company that works in both Maryland and Washington, D.C., owned by a retired Maryland State Police officer. Not long after Alonzo’s death, the management of the building canceled their contract with Blackout, and changed to a different company.

This June, following the deaths of James McBride and Alonzo Smith at the hands of the District’s special police officers, Mayor Muriel Bowser proposed new regulations on special police officers. The new regulations would double the minimum hours of training requirement from 40 to 80 hours. The special police officers would also be trained in how to execute use of force techniques, such as knees in the back and neck restraint techniques, in proper ways. The new rules also would add trainings in how to perform cardiopulmonary resuscitation, or CPR, and de-escalation procedures. If approved by the city council, the new regulations will take effect in 2017.

The death incidents involving special police officers last year might make security companies more cautious in hiring their employees, said Shehzad Ali, the owner of Elite Investigation and Protection Agency, a security company in Virginia. His company provides security services, including special police officers for the D.C, Maryland and Virginia area.

On one recent Sunday, a dozen people from various background; correctional officers, former law enforcement agents, and prior military officers were doing a firearms training at Ali’s security company in order to get, or renew their license for private security jobs. Ali, who is also the training director for the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services, said that he carefully vetted each candidate’s background and preferred to hire experienced officers rather than novices.

“If I am giving somebody a gun, putting him the full authority on some site where there are other people coming around, of course you need to see that the person is really has everything you need, very calm and mature, and have dealt with some situations. Companies do look for it,” he said.

He responded to the mayor’s new proposal, stating that doubling the training requirements is a good way to develop more proficient special police officers, particularly when they deal with a situation that requires the use of force. He said that the use-of-force continuum, or levels of force that special police officers take to resolve a situation, are not different from the public police officers’ guidelines. “But here you might learn in three hours while public law enforcement might spend six months just to learn it,” Ali said. “The differences are the duration and the training intensity.”

The general order also states that all criminal conducts by special police officers should be reported to the MPD’s Security Officers Management Branch. If there are allegations of excessive use of force, the MPD will investigate it. If proven guilty, the MPD’s SOMB can either revoke the officer’s license, the security company’s license, or both, depending on the level of criminal violation that has been committed. In cases resulting in death, such as the James McBride and Alonzo Smith’s case, the U.S Attorney’s office will conduct an investigation. If the prosecutors find any criminal intent, the officers can be prosecuted and put in prison.

For Keeone Marsha, 30, having been a special police officer for six years has made her aware of all the risks and responsibilities. She was a correctional officer before deciding to work as a special police officer at G4S, a security company in Washington, D.C. During her tenure, she said that she has encountered various types of people which has made her adept in how to deal with them. “As officers, we put our lives in danger every day, specially carrying your weapon,” she said. “You have people out there who come to the store to steal, you have clients that walk up to you aggressively, you have people coming there high on something.”

But Marsha said she always keeps her company’s policies and regulations in mind before she acts. “You can’t just walk around, shooting and arresting people,” she said. “There are rules in place. There’s procedure you have to follow. And if you don’t follow those procedure correctly, you will get yourself in trouble.”

Her company’s policy doesn’t allow her to put her hands on people, unless she physically sees them stealing or damaging property. She has been trained that if verbal commands don’t work and she has to detain a person, she must make sure she does it appropriately.

“As a security guard, we’re trained. We are not trying to harm people. There are different types of ways we shoot, and when we are restraining, we don’t break the arm. We don’t do things like that,” she said, adding that she always observes all of the circumstances before she acts while on duty.

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For Keeone Marsha, 30, having been a special police officer for six years has made her aware of all the risks and responsibilities. She tells her story of what it’s like to be a special police officer in D.C.

In 2012, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimated that there were 3,620 arrest-related deaths between 2003 and 20011. Many policy experts believe that better training and hiring are essential to reduce the number of in-custody deaths and fatal encountering with law enforcement agents.

“It takes a commitment and investment,” said Ron Hosko, the president of Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, an organization that advocates law enforcement’s legal rights. “Police are critical infrastructure in America. If we are not paying attention to the recruitment, the hiring, and the training of police and security officers across their careers, we are making a mistake.”

Hosko, who is a former assistant director of the FBI, also emphasized the importance of de-escalation training to prevent in-custody injuries and deaths. He said that officers “should know better what mental health crisis looks like and what their response options are.”

“So instead of moving closer to somebody who I think is mentally ill, or acting out of his medicine, I am giving you some space and bringing in some more help in a way that takes the threat level down, instead of cranks it up,” Hosko said.

Ron Hosko, the president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund, an organization that advocates law enforcement’s legal rights, tells about the importance of better recruiting and training to prevent in-custody deaths by the law enforcement agents

It has been almost two months since Smith heard the grand jury’s decision in her son’s case. She keeps advocating, going to protests and rallies, as usual. Although she still doesn’t accept the decision, she said she was prepared for it. Smith stated that there is a “systemic racial judiciary system in the country where black and brown people are murdered by law enforcement officers and vigilantes with impunity.”

She heard about the mayor’s new proposal to double the training hours for special police officers but she said that she was skeptical it would prevent the officers from using abusive and excessive force while encountering unarmed citizens. She reiterated that the only way to put an end in-custody deaths was to hold the special police officers accountable.

“Ultimately what I want is prosecution,” Smith said. For the past months, she has been raising funds in order to exhume her son’s body. She hopes she can find new information and evidence to reopen Alonzo’s case. “It doesn’t matter how long it will take,” she said. “I will relentlessly fight for the justice of my son.”

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