Editor’s note: This story is one of three stories detailing how the state has often failed to oversee private security guards it licenses. The investigation was produced by The Frontier and our media partner, NewsOn6.
Simon Martinez fired two rounds from his pistol into Sarge, his family’s German Shepherd, then shoved his wife onto the kitchen floor.
The 6-foot, 240-pound man killed the dog and left his wife bruised on her elbows and the back of her arms. The couple’s 11-year-old daughter was standing nearby, watching.
Martinez pleaded guilty to charges of cruelty to animals, domestic assault and battery in the presence of a minor child and reckless conduct with a firearm. He received a three year sentence, with nine months served in county jail and the remaining sentence suspended.
Martinez was an armed security guard licensed by a state agency, the Council on Law Enforcement Education and Training, (CLEET,) when the 2013 incident occurred. The agency licenses and oversees training for all law enforcement officers and private security guards in the state.
Though CLEET is supposed to take action against security guards who commit crimes, records show the agency didn’t revoke his license until 10 months after he was found guilty.
Martinez, who could not be reached for comment, kept his license for six months after he was released from custody. (Because nearly all of CLEET’s records on security guards are exempt from the state’s Open Records Act, it’s unknown whether he worked as a guard during that time.)
An investigation by The Frontier and our media partner, NewsOn6, shows that Martinez’s case is far from unusual. Private security guards licensed by CLEET in Oklahoma have been accused and convicted of a wide variety of serious crimes, some while on duty. The agency failed to take action for months or even years in some cases, allowing guards with violent records to continue working as armed enforcers.
The Frontier and NewsOn6 spent three months investigating how the state regulates private security guards. Among the investigation’s findings:
- CLEET has disciplined more than 100 security guards since April 2014 after the agency learned about criminal cases against them, often months or years later.
- The most common type of offense that led to disciplinary action involved firearms, followed by guards failing to alert CLEET when they commit crimes.
- Forty-eight guards were accused of violent crimes, including 21 cases of domestic abuse.
- CLEET is allowing people to serve as guards even though they didn’t pass their background checks. On average, CLEET took about a year to revoke the licenses of security guards who failed their background checks.
- State law makes all licensure information about security guards exempt from the state’s open records law. There is no publicly available list of licensed security guards or companies that employ them. Few, if any, professionals licensed by the state are given such protected status under the law, including actual police officers.
- The agency placed years worth of records into boxes when it moved more than 10 years ago and they remain a jumbled mess today. Anyone who wants to find out whether a security guard has been disciplined before 2013 would have to drive to Ada and sort through boxes of files, some containing records that aren’t public.
‘How are we going to find out?’
The Frontier compiled data on disciplinary actions against security guards from paper records spanning roughly a two-year period: April 2014 through May 2016. CLEET said that’s as far back as its disciplinary records are digitized.
The data also includes records of about 40 guards who were disciplined in 2004 and 2005. The database created by The Frontier for this story includes those years because they were the only boxes clearly labeled.
During all years reviewed by The Frontier, the state disciplined 158 guards. Despite the serious nature of some cases, the number of guards disciplined during those years represents only about 2 percent of approximately 8,000 security guards licensed in the state.
Most of the files at CLEET are packed in boxes scattered throughout its headquarters in the town of Ada.
Dozens of white boxes are stacked on shelves in rooms adjacent to staff offices. Others are tucked away in a classroom’s small storage closet. More boxes and records are in a cramped storage room on the second floor.
The bins are dated and labeled, but there’s no guarantee what records they actually contain. Employees said the boxes could have been filled with any number of documents over the years, so what’s actually inside is a mystery until someone lifts the lid and looks.
With the muddled network of records, finding a specific file is a challenge. Checking the disciplinary backgrounds of potential security guards is nearly impossible.
CLEET says there is no database of security guards’ disciplinary records and employees told The Frontier that they don’t have the time or resources to make one.
So we made our own database from the agency’s disciplinary records we were able to access, and we’re making it publicly available here.
Security guards who previously had their licenses revoked might get certified again because CLEET says it doesn’t have the staff to create a database.
“You could have a situation where something would be missed because there is no way to pull it up digitally,” said Steve Emmons, CLEET’s executive director.
In 2015, CLEET sent 67 final disciplinary action notices to security guards.
Sixteen violations involved guards who mishandled their guns. Four of those guards carried their guns while intoxicated. Other cases involved feloniously pointing a gun, robbery, having a gun while committing a felony or an accidental shooting and injury.
Additional guards were disciplined for cases of domestic abuse, child abuse and assault and battery.
Security guards can be disciplined for an array of reasons, including lying on a license application, drinking alcohol while armed with a gun or impersonating a police officer.
Only a small group — about 1 percent — of all licensed security guards received a final disciplinary action notice in 2015.
An Oklahoma statute requires the district attorney’s office to alert CLEET within 10 days when someone licensed as a police or peace officer is convicted of certain crimes. But there is no comparable statute that addresses security guards.
Security guards who commit crimes are supposed to self-report to CLEET upon arrest or face a $50-$100 fine.
But security guards don’t always notify the agency, and it often doesn’t learn of violations for months. Some of the disciplinary folders included newspaper clippings, and CLEET staff said they learn about incidents through media reports.
“That has been a problem for CLEET for probably its entire existence,” Emmons said. “The fact that we’re dependent on other agencies, other sources, news sources that provide us with information about events that happened.”
Sometimes, the agency doesn’t become aware of violations at all.
In another case, CLEET took about five months to suspend the license of a guard charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor in August 2015.
The guard allegedly convinced a girl to leave her home after curfew. He was also accused of encouraging the teen to send him nude photos.
The case is set for trial in September.
Another guard charged with domestic assault and battery and obstructing an officer in Lincoln County kept his license for almost a year prior to suspension.
The case was dismissed the same day it was supposed to go to jury trial in June 2016.
In Garvin County, a guard charged with domestic assault and battery in January 2015 kept his license for seven months before CLEET suspended it and fined him $550. The guard didn’t alert CLEET of his arrest and didn’t have liability insurance, as the agency requires.
The case was dismissed in September 2015 after the complaining witness failed to appear in court.
A security guard in Pittsburg County charged with domestic abuse assault and battery in October 2015 kept his license for more than three months before it was suspended. CLEET also fined him $550 for failing to notify the agency of the charges and not maintaining liability insurance.
The criminal case was dismissed in January 2016 when the prosecution witness failed to cooperate in court.
In the old days, before statewide training requirements were put in place, and professional standards were raised, the guidance security guards received was essentially non-existent.
“At one point to be a security officer, the idea was to be one, go buy a hat and you was one,” Tim Kennedy said. “You followed the guy that worked there around for a day, and really, that’s the way some states still are.”
Kennedy and his father, George Kennedy, run 438 Cops, one of a handful of Tulsa businesses that train security guards. An unarmed security guard needs to complete 40 hours of training to be licensed, while armed security guards must complete 72 hours.
A full course at 438 Cops that offers all available training to a would-be security guard consists of 182 hours of classes and costs $2,995.
George Kennedy was a police officer here in the 1960s-70s, and he said the difference between security guards then and now is stark.
“I dealt with security officers before there was any training required, and it’s the difference between night and day,” he said.
“We believe there should be more training, but that’s to some extent a selfish thing on our part, more training, more students, more money. But we always think more training is necessary. Can we justify it? We have down through the years.”
It’s a labor-focused industry, and the turnover rate is relatively high, said Steve Amitay, executive director and general counsel of the National Association of Security Companies.
“It’s a combination of things,” he said. “And I think it’s partly the pay. It could be the demands of the job. It could be, some people take these jobs just temporarily.
“But unfortunately, it’s still a relatively low-wage industry.”
In 2015, the average pay for security guards in Oklahoma was $11.70 an hour or $28,110 a year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Security companies often recruit employees on Craigslist. Most offer guards $10-$14 an hour. Many boast about offering a signing bonus for immediate hires.
“Are you looking to do more than just drive around with your lights on to scare people away, or sit for 8 hours a shift,” one ad seeking security guard applicants in Tulsa asks. “Would you rather find and detain a criminal in the act, then (sic) watch them walk off with other people’s property?”
Other times, security guards advertise themselves to companies, including one who promised: “HAVE GUN. WILL TRAVEL.”
A hard sell
It’s not easy for CLEET to keep its office in Ada staffed.
Tucked away just a few miles northwest of the town, the spiral CLEET campus is well-groomed, but barely noticeable from the highway that sits just to its east.
Ada (pop. 17,140) won the bidding war for CLEET about a decade ago when the town offered to donate 300 acres of land for the facility, as well as free water and sewer lines. Eight years later, the grounds remain immaculate, and the interior is carefully maintained by a staff of custodians.
But on days when the building’s not bustling with recruits, it can resemble a ghost town of empty desks and empty offices. Emmons admitted it can be a struggle to draw employees to the small town.
Ada is an hour and 25 minutes away from Oklahoma City and two hours from Tulsa. Even if a job candidate is willing to either drive a long distance to work or move to town, they’re joining a state agency that hasn’t seen a pay raise in many years.
“Salaries are not high enough in a lot of people’s view to be worthy of a move from the Oklahoma City area or Tulsa area down there,” Emmons said.
“We get applicants. But we certainly don’t get a cross-section from the state of people who are qualified to teach at CLEET.”
The agency has about 40 employees, down from about 54 in 2004, when Emmons started.
“It’s dropped significantly,” he said. “We have lost staff over the years.”
In the last two years, CLEET’s budget has been cut by almost 20 percent.
Last year, the agency was faced with a choice: Cut training or cut service.
To reduce costs, CLEET stopped serving dinner to officers in training last year, which saved $125,000. To save another $50,000, it also stopped buying ammo for trainees.
For the second consecutive year, CLEET will charge for meals during training to fund its cafeteria services.
“I think we can’t take another cut without impacting training,” Emmons said.
To take the burden off of the agency’s limited budget, staff has taken on some expenses.
When Emmons travels, he doesn’t normally charge CLEET per diem. And instead of driving a state car during the thousands of miles he traverses over the course of a year, he takes his own.
“Like teachers who go out and buy supplies for their own classrooms and stuff. We’re all just having to do what we can do.”
Amitay said although he understands CLEET’s financial troubles, he doesn’t think the agency is actively trying to find solutions.
“I feel for them, but I think that they need to work closer with the industry to come up with cost-effective solutions,” he said.
There’s a delay in the agency licensing security guards, sometimes up to three weeks, Amitay said.
“On the one hand, it’s good that Oklahoma has a high level of requirements and permits,” he said. “But then the licensing has been delayed, so that’s a real negative. Especially in a time when there’s a growing demand in security.”
But the agency is always looking for new revenue sources but options are limited, Emmons said.
The agency’s private security division is financed solely through licensing fees. Through CLEET, the cost for an armed security guard license is $141 and an unarmed license costs $91.
The private security side can’t share finances with other divisions, doesn’t get general funds and revolving funds are already allocated, Emmons said.
This year, the Legislature approved a bill that allowed CLEET to hire a second IT employee to help build a program that would update the agency’s record-keeping system. But the person who was recently hired died before the program was completed.
“So we’re back to having that one on hold until we get that process going again,” Emmons said.
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