On Sunday, Sept. 6, Rabia Keeble stood on the sidewalk outside the Oakland Whole Foods Market near Lake Merritt holding a sign declaring, "Black Lives Matter." It was the second day in a row that Keeble and about a dozen others, outraged by the alleged beating of a black customer by a store security guard the previous Thursday night, stood vigil in an attempt to turn away shoppers.
Most people ignored the small band of protesters, but Keeble's luck turned when she recognized one potential shopper as prominent civil rights attorney John Burris. Burris heeded Keeble's cries of "Mr. Burris, please don't shop here today" by turning his SUV around and driving off.
Four days later, Burris was back at the Oakland Whole Foods, this time holding court with news cameras outside while protesters inside blocked checkout aisles and effectively shut down the store for more than an hour. Burris now plans to file suit on behalf of the customer, who he says suffered a facial fracture and concussion during the beating. Burris also wants the security guard to face criminal charges. (Whole Foods fired the guard and subsequently replaced the security firm.)
Whether such charges will be filed is very much in doubt. The Oakland Police Department is investigating the incident but won't comment on details.
Oakland has been the site of several violent altercations between security guards and civilians in recent years. In July, a former security guard for Oakland High School was convicted of felony assault for attacking a wheelchair-bound student who has cerebral palsy. Security cameras caught the guard dumping the handcuffed student out of his chair and punching him.
Other questionable uses of force have gone unprosecuted. In June, a 21-year-old unarmed man was shot and killed by a security guard after a violent dispute at an East Oakland gas station. The Alameda County District Attorney reviewed the incident and declined to press charges. In February 2014, a guard hired by residents in the Oakmore neighborhood chased, shot, and injured a man who he believed to be a burglar. The guard, who was not supposed to be carrying a gun, was not charged.
Anecdotally, at least, it seems that the 40-hour training a guard must go through to become licensed grants him or her at least some latitude when it comes to the law.
There were about 280,000 licensed security guards in California in 2014, according to the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, a state agency set up in 1915 to regulate private detectives. Of those, 46,500 had a permit to carry a firearm. According to a 2015 report on BSIS prepared for the state Senate, the number of licenses issued by the bureau (80 percent of which go to security guards) has increased by 10 percent over the last four years.
With state regulation comes state obfuscation. The state doesn't track how many security guards are deployed in each county. Neither San Francisco police nor the San Francisco District Attorney's Office responded to queries about how often security guards in this city are investigated or charged with using excessive force against civilians. The Alameda County District Attorney's Office says it has "no way" of tracking incidents involving security guards, but added that they do not receive any special favor in the same way a police officer might.
"There is not a different standard applied to security guards," says Teresa Drenick, a spokesperson for the Alameda County DA. "We always look at the totality of the evidence, and each case and set of facts is unique."
While that may be true, it's hard to imagine a non-security guard walking free after shooting at a man in the street or beating a man unconscious.
The state requires security guards to file a report when they discharge a firearm or otherwise engage in "violent acts," but the bureau doesn't compile the resulting statistics by type. This means the state doesn't know how many security guards are involved in shootings each year. Neither does the public, as the documents are shielded from public records requests.
Further, all security guard data relies on self-reporting from guards and their employers, meaning many "violent acts" likely go unreported each year. And the BSIS does not have direct authority to suspend an armed guard's license following a violent incident until a criminal conviction is obtained. Instead, the bureau must wait to go through a revocation process (requiring investigation and prosecution by the Attorney General's office) that can take several months.
This means that, absent swift action by police and prosecutors, the security guard who allegedly left the Whole Foods customer lying unconscious in a pool of his own blood could very well have a new job today: back on the beat, armed, and keeping the community safe.