Most professionals spend their time thinking about running their business, preparing for the future, and putting out fires. Security tends to be an afterthought. If a business has security officers, it’s often because it’s required by their insurance company.
However, when an incident occurs, any shortcomings in security will quickly be exposed and can cause liability for the business. Here are some quick ways to conduct a security check similar to what a lawyer might do following an incident. The following doesn’t represent legal advice but is a collection of best practices I’ve identified over several years managing security.
The Danger of Foreseeability
Security professionals sometimes refer to foreseeability as “the first time’s free.” While I disagree with this attitude, the important takeaway is that the second time an incident happens, there’s no excuse. For example, if a person is robbed in a hotel lobby bathroom, it’s foreseeable to the hotel that this could happen again. So, if a second person is robbed in the same bathroom, a decent lawyer could show the hotel didn’t take adequate protections to protect his client against a known threat.
Much of what I’m recommending comes from resources for lawyers that I read years ago. Other suggestions come from reading depositions of employees who were called to testify after an incident occurred on company property. It’s unlikely that staying willfully unaware of past problems will protect a business from lawsuits because good lawyers will find these things before trial and present them as evidence.
So how does a business determine what’s foreseeable? It’s often a combination of internal and external threats. In the above example, the hotel should have known about the possibility of robbery because it happened on the premises. The hotel would likely have made internal reports and documentation in response to the first incident.
If the hotel doesn’t have internal documentation or if a new company takes over, it’s still possible to find records. Many cities freely share a list of police calls by address. In San Francisco, this is available through the SF OpenData website. By default, the website lists police reports starting in 2003 throughout the city. Reports are listed by block instead of by address. That means a search for reports for the block of SF MOMA requires the search term “100 block of 3rd St.” and returns a result of 1154 police records since 2003.
A list of police reports is a good starting point, but access to records of crime in the surrounding area is also important. It’s possible to get the same data from SF OpenData, but online crime maps are often easier to visualize. The California Free Public Records Directory offers crime maps that use color-coded markers to indicate various types of crime. There’s no exact geographic perimeter or time period to review, but a couple blocks and a few years are probably a safe bet.
Going back to the hotel example, let’s assume the hotel is in a retail neighborhood without other nearby hotels. The surrounding crime maps will give an indication of the types of crime occurring nearby but won’t tell the whole story. That’s why it’s important to look at similar businesses nearby. In San Francisco, there are over 200 hotels, so the data set is fairly rich. If a hotel were in a smaller city, such as Sausalito across the Golden Gate Bridge, the hotel’s management might need to look at hotels in San Francisco or in similar towns in the area.
The police report and crime map methods work within San Francisco but might be less available in different reporting jurisdictions. In either case, reviewing local news, industry publications, and online reporting could serve as alternative sources of info.
Another common question during lawsuits involves proper licensing of security officers. I know of one case where a private business hired its own employees as security officers but didn’t take the time to get them licensed by the state. This wasn’t a problem until the security manager was on the witness stand and had to testify that the business didn’t actually have licensed security officers despite the high crime rate of the area. This also means the officers probably weren’t vetted against FBI and DOJ databases the way licensed officers are.
Types of Security Officers
In California, there are two types of security officers. The first are employed by a security company and are then contracted to businesses. The second are hired directly by a business and aren’t allowed to work as security anywhere else. The second option is fine, but it requires an understanding of California law to stay within compliance.
Choosing a licensed security company may lessen responsibility of the business that hires it, but it doesn’t eliminate all responsibility. It’s still important for the business to check that the company it hires is licensed and insured in California and that the company’s officers are also properly licensed. Every licensed security company in California is required to display its license number on its website so it’s easy to check. It’s also easy to lookup a company’s license by typing its name into BSIS’s website.
If professionals look at their business from the position of a civil litigation lawyer, they can help protect themselves from some common errors related to security. Staying aware of past events protects not only the business but the customers and employees who go there. A security audit takes very little time but can pay off if it helps avoid a single incident.