Illustration by Leo Clark

Private security is a mirage

Portland businesses should invest in radical compassion

For the past few years, downtown Portland businesses have increasingly begun to hire security guards in order to protect their property from those most affected by the many crises of our world. This is a mistake.


I work and attend school downtown and, like many people, I am afraid at times. But the decision to contract with armed, unaccountable, minimally-trained private security companies is as dangerous as it is commonplace, and the impact it has on employees and the community in which many of us live and work is real.


It is important to understand the current context of Portland and to consider how the Portland Business Alliance, Portland Police Association and conservative Political Action Committees (PACs)—like People for Portland—have engaged in a full-court press intended to control the levers of power in our city. These organizations have consistently used their resources on disingenuous ad campaigns meant to skew perceptions of Portland as they continue to over-police people who lack resources.


On the other side of houseless sweeps and the general criminalization of poverty is a vulnerable community—a community that is, as ever, disproportionately made up of the very people who are represented in the flags flown by these same businesses from time to time. With the expansion of the freshly-minted Portland Street Response, there has been some hope for a more compassionate strategy moving forward. Researchers at Portland State found that by sending social workers to meet people who are in crisis where they’re at and help solve underlying structural issues, the program has shown amazing results without criminalizing mental illness and poverty. To hire private security—despite reports on the counter-productive practices employed by these private security companies—is, at best, to neglect the safety of the communities in which Portlanders work and do business. Worse is to read the available data and believe that this brand of violence is the right thing to perpetuate.


Some might be surprised to learn how low the bar is for those who want to become security guards in Oregon. The Department of Public Safety Standards and Training (DPSST) sets the minimum standards to begin an Armed Security Professional application. One must be over 21 years of age, have earned a GED or higher and be able to pass a background check. If those standards are met, they can then enter a required 14-hour unarmed training program before continuing on to a 24-hour armed training program—altogether less than one full-time workweek.


Without proper and consistent training, security guards may themselves be in danger while simultaneously endangering the public. The presence of a weapon alone can be a catalyst for a negative outcome in an escalated situation. This past June, a Southeast Portland security guard was shot with his own gun during a midnight fight over a trespassing violation. In this case, no one else was around. But what happens in a similar situation in which bystanders are present and stray bullets are flying around our city?


In July, a security guard in Seattle was arrested for stabbing a man over a trespassing violation. Police found the security guard’s knife hidden in a bag of chips in a break room after he initially denied the altercation. The uniform alone does not make our society safer—it gives a sense of security to some, ultimately at the expense of security for others.


It is no secret that right-wing political violence in Portland has escalated over the past few years. It is important to understand the context of this violence, as private security firms are typically proud that they hire former law enforcement and military personnel. As right-wing extremists, white supremacists and groups advocating for fascism have come into our city to terrorize vulnerable populations, the people of Portland have repeatedly been called to defend themselves against these violent threats. But on every occasion, the Portland Police Bureau—not to mention former President Trump in his 2020 Homeland Security charade against Black Lives Matter protestors—has ushered in far-right extremism and turned their batons and tear gas against the very people whose flags once again fly in City Hall and Portland businesses.


While not an isolated occurrence, in 2017 the United States Attorney’s Office was forced to investigate an incident in which right-wing militia members acting as security guards assisted federal police in arresting a counter-protestor at a pro-Trump rally in Portland.


A congressional hearing is taking place right now that exposes many current and former law enforcement and military personnel in their attempt to overthrow U.S. democracy and reinstate Trump as president. To see what happened on Jan. 6, 2021, and not recognize that Portland has been a recurrent practice run for an attempted coup is to turn a blind eye in the interest of business as usual.


For years, Portland businesses have closed in haste when groups like the Proud Boys, Three Percenters and Oath Keepers descended upon our city from neighboring towns. Business owners understand the dangers these groups pose to our communities. Further, private security companies are not impervious to the rising threat of fascism—they are the breeding grounds for a new variety of violent over-policing in the U.S.


Businesses should not overlook the fact that armed, unaccountable, far-right-aligned, private police forces might make a regular practice of lying. Some lie regularly enough that their testimonies have been deemed invalid in Multnomah County courtrooms. These security companies have been known to exaggerate their commitment to de-escalation on their websites while providing little to no long-term training for their staff. Simply hiring former police officers and military personnel and hoping for the best is not an adequate vetting process. Nor does it mean that those people have the right skills for dealing with the types of scenarios that take place most often in our neighborhoods. Regardless of what they say on their websites, the reality is that they provide just the opposite of what we need.


I encourage Portland businesses to rethink their fear-based responses to the crises facing our city, and to choose radical compassion instead. If businesses can buy the illusion of protection offered by private police, they can just as easily employ harm reduction techniques that have proven to be highly effective in protecting our communities. These solutions exist. Private security is a mirage.