R-Talk With Armed Guards

Upon hearing that our downtown property and business owners have banded together to hire armed private security personnel to patrol their properties and oust the vagrants they find there, I pretty much fell into a huge hate spiral. Just what we need—more xenophobic, old west, hick mentality. And R-Town? I think we can all admit that’s a pretty cringeworthy name.

Up to this point, the downtown property owners, in spite of city-offered start-up funds, aren’t willing to entertain spending the money on a Property-Based Business Improvement District* (http://www.pumaworldhq.com/downloads/PUMA_CA-PBID_FactSheet8-10.pdf), but they’re willing to fork it over for a group of gun-toting mercenaries who are probably wearing eye patches, running around town with itchy trigger-fingers? At least that’s what I envisioned when I heard about this jackass plan. Then, one sunny day last week, I ran into a fleet from A.G. Private Protection in front of my office and they were more than happy to chat it up. Though one guy looked fairly grumpy and shook hands like a walnut cracker, not a single one was wearing an eye patch.

They were all dressed smartly, their uniforms looked really similar to law enforcement uniforms, and nobody gave off any roid-raging asshole vibes whatsoever. Then again, I’m a 36-year-old white woman wearing yoga pants who isn’t going to be winning any footraces; I don’t really come off as rebellious. Now if I were sitting in a puddle of my own urine next to Duffy’s at 10am playing a harmonica and begging for booze money with a couple of sketchy looking dogs/pals, they might be a little less friendly. But A.G. Private Protection Operations Manager Ryan Spehling answered all my questions candidly and openly.

So, you guys are kind of a big deal right now. Why do we need armed security downtown? Isn’t that what the police are for?

We have a branch office up here, and actually we’ve been patrolling this area for the past two years already. We’ve covered all the motels for the last year and a half, and a lot of other businesses like 7-11, Jack’s Restaurant, the Crazy Horse Saloon; we cover the Humboldt Skate Park, North State Autobrokers, Boradori Automotive. So we’ve been covering all these sites.

The way this actually came about was that the business owners approached us after they interviewed multiple security companies regarding security in the downtown area. More or less [needing] just a command presence, a deterrent on private property for things that have been going on. You know the spray painting, the vandalism that’s been happening on the sides of the buildings, drug use that’s occurring on private properties, particularly the site over here behind your building. Somebody had mentioned that air conditioning units had been broken into and they’ve damaged them. And there’s been graffiti back there. Those are some of the things we’re hoping to help deter while we’re down here.

Yeah there’s always somebody back there smoking pot, but it ends up hotboxing the ladies’ room so leave him alone. What does your presence look like? Will you be hanging out in the spaces, the alcoves? The sidewalk is public property so it seems kind of cramped space-wise to be hanging out in a little doorway all day.

Yes, the sidewalks are public property, the alcoves are a part of the owner’s property. But we’re walking from property to property, and while we’re walking we’re looking at parking lots and private alleyways that belong to the owners, we’ll be checking those areas. And the thresholds as well, where people are loitering and littering and damaging property.

What does an encounter with somebody look like? What is your procedure for that, when you’re trying to move them along? Do you physically touch them, or do you just verbally ask them to leave?

It’s a consensual contact. We’re walking around making contact with all sorts of people, even people that just want to talk to us. So one, we make verbal contact with them. We inform them that they’re trespassing on the property, and they need to leave the property. Under [section] 602 of the Penal Code we could make that arrest, but we’re hoping to use our verbal tactics to move them along so that there is no hands-on. Obviously if we believe that there’s going to be hands-on, we can call law enforcement and they could be cited and then released.

What’s an example of a verbal tactic that you could use to move someone along?

Our verbal tactics would be dependent upon what we see when we arrive. If we see them smoking marijuana, because of Chico State and the Boys & Girls Club, under health and safety code 11362.79b which says that they can’t smoke marijuana within 1000 feet of any school—it’s a misdemeanor. If it happens in our presence, just like any other citizen, we have the right to make a citizen’s arrest. But what we’re going to do is just ask them to put it away and move along. Also dogs that aren’t licensed through the city; some dogs are a concern for some of the business owners, like whether or not the dog has a rabies vaccine and if the dog’s aggressive or not—so that’s another verbal tactic that we can use to move people along.

So obviously Chico is pretty divided on this issue. There are a lot of people who think this additional security is really going to help our town, clean it up and keep us safe—and then there are concerns that having armed security downtown means an intimidating and aggressive presence that’s going to have implications for everybody, not just the loitering nomads. 

I totally understand that. We’re a professional company, we have our own training facility, we train our own personnel before they come out on the street. A lot of us have prior training, either through the police academy or the military. We do have a few employees that are current law enforcement, some are reserves, some are full-time law enforcement that come out and help us when they have time off. We do our own backgrounds and interviews to make sure we’re hiring the right person for the job.

Have you been feeling any backlash from people on the street? Have you been taking a lot of heat?

No, not really. I would say that out of every 50 people, in the general public, there’s one that has their opinion about what they believe regarding security patrolling the downtown area versus law enforcement. But for the most part, I believe all the business owners are happy that we’re down here and I hope that while we’re down here that we can make an impact.

I’ve lived here my whole life, aside from going to the police academy on the coast. I’m happy I’m able to support the downtown area. This is where my family shops too.This is where my wife’s family lives, my kids go to school here.

How many are on your team?

Generally it’ll be consisting of two officers and two shifts, a day shift and a night shift. Right now we’re just going around talking to business owners so they see what they’re getting and they understand that we’re not from Sacramento; there were some rumors that [Chico] would be getting a whole bunch of guys that would be aggressive from Sacramento. All my guys live local. We’ve been up here for about a few years and we’ve only had to make a couple of arrests with no major use of force. We have a great rapport with the local law enforcement; we work with them, and we respect them.

So here’s the crux: no matter how you feel about the idea of armed security guards patrolling downtown, the men and women who are on the job are Chico-Americans too. They live, shop, raise their families, and earn a living here. They’re caught in the cross-fire between two different ideologies. Is this presence a good thing for Chico? I’m not convinced. But if you, like me, are upset about the tactics that the downtown area property owners are employing, then we should put pressure on them to find another solution.

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