01/15/2013 10:36 EST | Updated 03/17/2013 05:12 EDT

Surge in private security raises concerns over rights

As the number of security guards in Canada rises faster than the number of police officers, some are expressing concerns over blurring the line between private and public police forces.

There are now more than 140,000 private security guards licensed in Canada and only about 70,000 active police officers. Compared to the growing population, the number of police officers is actually decreasing, according to Statistics Canada.

These figures are raising alarms among some experts, who argue that more careful oversight of the security industry is necessary as citizens increasingly come into contact with private security, even in areas that appear to be public spaces.

Abby Deshman, director of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association’s public safety program, says that she has seen complaints involving systemic discrimination and excessive use of force by security guards.

“They’re not armed but anytime you ask someone to leave or need to effect a citizen’s arrest, they can grab you, they can physically restrain you, hold you until the police come,” Deshman said, adding that situations can escalate, especially when dealing with people who may have underlying mental health problems and people who are homeless.

About 1,000 complaints against private security guards or companies were registered over the past five years in the provinces and territories that keep track, but many experts point out that the reports don’t provide much detail nor give information on the outcome of the cases.

Deshman believes the figure would be even higher if more people were aware of their rights when dealing with private security guards or knew where to report a bad encounter.

“[Private security companies] are provincially regulated,” said Deshman, meaning that each jurisdiction has a different system of training, approving and monitoring guards.

“There are usually complaints that you can file with the provincial governments, but it's not a similar level of transparency and oversight that we have with the police.”

Cutting policing costs

Policing experts from across the country and some from overseas are meeting in Ottawa Wednesday and Thursday to discuss ways to make policing and community safety more affordable. Private security is expected to be part of the discussion.

Ross McLeod, owner of the Ont.-based security company Intelligarde, says that the private sector can be a useful way to help cut policing costs across the country by taking on work traditionally done by police.

“The average person in everyday life is concerned about parking issues, parties, noise and sort of low-level bad behaviour — maybe criminal behaviour, but usually petty,” McLeod said. “The security industry can deal with that very, very effectively and cost-efficiently.”

McLeod says that the current model of policing is unsustainable and he hopes the security industry can help. He has joined with former police officers and other experts to create a non-profit agency called the Civic Protection Institute. He hopes that the organization will help “wrestle that financial demon to the ground” by working to provide greater oversight — vetting security companies, tendering for contracts, auditing their work and enforcing regulations.

McLeod says that as the market brings on new demands, the security industry is progressing and standards around required testing and training are being raised.

“I think as people realize what is available from the private sector it will become more sophisticated,” he said.

In addition to increasing public scrutiny on security guards, Deshman also hopes to see changes from within the private industry.

“Anytime damages are awarded against a company, they're going to take notice,” she said. “It is going to have an impact hopefully on training regimes and actions going forward.”