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There are police officers, and there are security officers. Who's protecting you?

Thin Blue Line

The big difference between police officers and security officers, says security officer Robert Bangel, is that if a police officer is shot and killed in the line of duty it's a capital offense. If a security officer like him were to die the same way it could be manslaughter. This, Bangel says, eats at him every time he puts on his bulletproof vest.

As community policing grows and specialized security officers are dispatched to schools and neighborhoods, more people will find themselves relying both on private security and public policing. But how interchangeable do we want security officers and police officers to be?

According to a recent study for the U.S. Department of Justice, the role and requirements of security officers have changed drastically over the past decade. In addition to offering property protection and crime prevention, many private security companies are now offering quasi-police services in all kinds of places, from low-income housing complexes to affluent neighborhoods. The companies' officers act in a role much like that of community police officers.

The result is that private security officers like Bangel are assuming responsibilities that put them in situations where they have some control over the public.

This new role challenges the common perception of private security, blurs the distinction between security officers and public police, and raises questions about whether security officers should be granted authority normally reserved for public police officers.

It's a complex issue — one that Richmond City Councilwoman Gwen Hedgepeth says should not be ignored.

"There has been a strong effort to use the reinforcement of security to clean up neighborhoods," says Hedgepeth, whose 9th District includes the low-income, racially diverse private-housing complex that Bangel patrols.

Hedgepeth is familiar with the 1,286-unit multifamily complex. "There used to be a tremendous amount of calls from [that neighborhood]," she says, "and now I'm not getting those calls."

Richmond police do not track calls for service from a particular apartment complex, but 2nd Precinct officers patrol the complex nightly when they're not responding to calls elsewhere, says Richmond Police Lt. Matt Sassner. He is cautious in describing the relationship between police and community officers. "They certainly can be helpful with low-priority calls," Sassner says, "like complaints of loud music."

Bangel, who is 47, didn't set out to be a spokesman for security officers. By all accounts, he isn't. He works as a purchasing agent for Eveready Mechanical Corp. But to hear him talk, it's his night job that defines him. In nearly every way, he insists, what he does for $11 an hour as a private security officer is what police officers do on their beat.

Licensed security officers are not sworn police officers. Still, they respond to all kinds of calls, write summonses, make arrests and appear before magistrates. They go through local, state and FBI background checks and pay for hundreds of hours of training. Many, like Bangel, are licensed to carry guns.

On a recent blistering afternoon only a few people are outside the South Side community where Bangel and his partner work at night. Throughout the seemingly infinite maze of dead ends, a handful of riding lawn mowers inch in different directions toward grass. Broken brown and green glass scattered across the asphalt crunches like acorns underfoot.

Style agreed not to identify the complex for security reasons. The company that took over the property's management in July declined to talk about that security and whether it had been effective. Likewise, Bangel's manager with Security Services of America also declined to talk about its practices or policies.

But residents Dwight James, 26, and Lavard Cosby, 24, talk freely about the neighborhood and its reputation for crime. They call it a war zone.

"Living in South Side across the water from the city you hear more gunshots," says Cosby, "but less people get killed. Security keeps it down at night."

They say the area is especially tense because of its racial diversity of black, Mexicans and white residents. There are other divisions, too, they say; for example, some African-American tenants moved in when the Blackwell community was razed.

The predominant crimes, they say, are domestic fights and drug-dealing. "Most people don't pay any attention to security," Cosby says. "They're not protecting us, they're protecting their property."

"Honestly," James says, "they don't talk to us, they don't get out of their cars [and] they go through the parking lot once. They assume that we like the crime because we live in it."

If given expanded authority, trained security officers could do more to make the neighborhood feel at ease, Bangel says. It's why he's appealing to Richmond's chief magistrate judge to request a new designation, something like that of "special police" or "conservator of the peace."

"We need to be given more law-enforcement rights in the community," Bangel says. "We need to get security officer off our badge so kids aren't calling 'Security! Security!' and laughing."

Many disagree.

In Virginia, security officers are not permitted to wear a badge that carries any variation of the word "police."

Robin Creamer and her husband, Sean, a former Norfolk police officer, own the 5-year-old private security business Physical Security Services, where Bangel recently worked for about a month. Creamer says she doesn't believe Bangel's requests will be granted any time soon — especially in Virginia, she says, where the state's Department of Criminal Justice Services sets private security standards and regulates licenses.

Tim Paul, section chief with the crime prevention and law enforcement staff of the Department of Criminal Justice Services, oversees the Virginia Community Institute project. He agrees with Creamer. "There is a need and a role for security officers and they provide valuable work," Paul says. "But they present two different types of situations."

Paul says it's not uncommon for people in security positions, like Bangel, to want more authority.

"Basically they're confusing their roles," Paul says.

It's something that Paul's department deals with constantly. So much so that its state crime committee is studying the role of security resource officers in Virginia's public schools.

Back on his night beat, Bangel draws his Smith & Wesson 40-caliber. He says he's never used it. Still, when you get two calls a night and teen-agers shoot off AK 47s and Mac 10s it's only natural to "go into a combat mode," he says.

No, he says, he doesn't get afraid. Duty comes first. "It's a good feeling when you go home and you've saved a person's life," Bangel says wistfully. "We're not cowboys. We're community officers."

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