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Homeland security's weak link
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WASHINGTON — Richard Bergendahl fights the war on terrorism in Los Angeles for $19,000 a year, one of the legions of ill-trained, low-paid private security guards protecting tempting terrorist targets. Down the block from his high rise is a skyscraper identified by President Bush as a target for a Sept. 11-style airplane attack.
Bergendahl, 55, says he often thinks: “Well, what am I doing here? These people are paying me minimum wage.”
The security guard industry found itself involuntarily transformed after September 2001, from an army of “rent-a-cops” to protectors of the homeland. Yet, many security officers are paid little more than restaurant cooks or janitors.
And the industry is governed by a maze of conflicting state rules, according to a nationwide survey by The Associated Press. Wide chasms exist among states in requirements for training and background checks. Tens of thousands of guard applicants were found to have criminal backgrounds.
A New Jersey Democratic congressman, Rep. Robert Andrews, said he’s confident that lawmakers will support a bill he sponsored to upgrade the industry by requiring criminal background checks for all U.S. security guards.
“How much is it worth not to have one criminal guarding a nuclear power plant?” he asked.
Andrews said the checks will have the effect of raising pay, because they will weed out many guards whose criminal histories lead them to accept low salaries.
“This is one area where doing things on the cheap is a really bad idea,” Andrews said.
“A security officer is ... not trained to be a G.I. Joe,” said Paul Maniscalco, a senior research scientist at George Washington University.
More than five years after the attacks, Maniscalco is helping to change the security guard culture. He recently developed an anti-terrorism computer course for shopping mall guards, who are being taught they now have more concerns than rowdy teenagers and shoplifters.
The middle ground pay for security officers in 2006 was $23,620, according to a new Labor Department survey. The low pay reflects cutthroat competition among security firms, who submit the lowest possible bids to win contracts. Lowball contracts also mean lower profit margins and less money for training and background checks for guards.
Some states require FBI fingerprint checks for every guard job applicant. Others let the industry police itself. Some states require background checks for company owners but not guards.
In states that keep such records, the AP found more than 96,000 of 1.3 million applicants, about 7.3 percent, were turned down — mostly, state officials said, for having criminal histories.
Congressional investigators reported last year that 89 private guards working at two military bases had histories that included assault, larceny, possession and use of controlled substances and forgery. The Army says it has purged guards with criminal histories from its bases.
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