In video of a police confrontation with Occupy L.A. protesters outside a Bank of America branch downtown over the weekend a few private security guards are seen, batons-in-hand, helping the LAPD form a skirmish line.
In fact officers can be seen pushing security guards into strategic positions as they face off against the so-called 99-percenters. The security employees push people back with batons and aim the business ends of the weapons at citizens. At least one guard even appears to participate in the arrest of demonstrator Anthony Loscano.
What gives? Did the LAPD just deputize a group of civilians? LAPD Lt. Andy Neiman tells the Weekly:
I have no idea why they were with us. Typically we do not integrate and mix resources when we're in a tactical situation like that because of training issues and stuff like that.
These aren't just run-of-the-mill security guards though. They're the notorious "shirts," employees of downtown's business improvement districts, organizations that band together to increase security, clean up trash and lobby the city for improvements.
Some, like the Downtown Center Business Improvement District and its president, Carol E. Schatz, are major voices at City Hall. One of the 10 most powerful people in L.A., Schatz has been a major supporter of the billionaire-controlled Anschutz Entertainment Group's proposal to build an NFL stadium on publicly owned property.
Homeless advocates have long accused the shirts of going beyond their authority (which is that of any normal citizen) and pushing people on the streets around, even assaulting them at times.
They're called the shirts because they wear bright-colored polo shirts depending on which downtown "BID" they work for. The guards helping the LAPD in this case wear purple tops (emblazoned in back with "DISTRICT SECURITY") and are employed by Schatz's Downtown Center BID -- even thought marchers were outside its zone (PDF of map).
Alice Callaghan, founder of the Skid Row service organization Las Familias del Pueblo, says of the purple shirts, "They're the worst."
"They have absolutely no authority," she tells the Weekly, "yet they're out there ordering people around."
But she claims the shirts have been instrumental in doing dirty work the police can't. "They routinely roust homeless people," Callaghan says:
Police have a history of using them for things that they the police are not constitutionally allowed to do. They are answerable only to the business improvement districts who hire them even though they operate on public space.
Callaghan says Las Familias hands leaflets out to homeless people telling them "don't talk to them, ignore them."
The Downtown Center BID states that its guards are "highly trained." It calls them officers even though they are not sworn law enforcement:
These officers are professionally supplied through Universal Protection Services, and are well-trained in topics ranging from customer service to drug abuse recognition (DAR). Additionally, the DCBID is the first BID to start it's own BID Academy, in which our safety staff attends classes above and beyond state requirements. In total, our safety staff completes over 300 hours of training!
Our safety staff serves as additional eyes and ears for the Los Angeles Police Department, maintaining a professional relationship with all local law enforcement and city entities. They also provide safety services during various significant events throughout all of Downtown, including the Los Angeles Marathon, Fiesta Broadway, Giant Village, various demonstrations, and more.
Victoria Rangel, a spokeswoman for the BID, told the Weekly it's not unusual to see shirts working hand-in-hand with cops:
The Downtown Center Business Improvement District's safety team works throughout the Downtown area everyday to ensure the safety of everyone who lives, works and visits in Downtown. The safety staff provides traffic and crowd control services during various significant events throughout all of Downtown, including the Los Angeles Marathon, Fiesta Broadway, Giant Village [an outdoor electronic dance party], various demonstrations, and more. The LAPD routinely seeks the assistance of the DCBID with traffic and crowd control, a common practice among BIDs throughout the city. The safety staff is professionally trained in traffic and crowd control situations, as well as other safety issues.
Private security guards were also seen standing outside LAPD headquarters during last week's raid of the Occupy L.A. encampment at City Hall across the street, though they never appeared to us to have participated in any of the action.
Neiman of the LAPD indicated that the Saturday afternoon incident was unusual, but:
We can't stop them from jumping in, like a good Samaritan jumping in, as long as they're acting with due diligence for the law.
[Updated at 4:02 p.m.]: LAPD Commander Andrew Smith reiterated to the Weekly this afternoon that the department has a longstanding history of using the shirts for "crowd control" downtown. He said shirts were indeed deployed during the Occupy L.A. raid last week: They manned storefronts in an effort to prevent possible rioters from breaking glass (that didn't happen).
Although he admits that the shirts "have the same powers a regular citizen would have," Smith says:
They're hardworking kids. We end up hiring some of them.
He says shirts have helped clear downtown during a bomb scare and are quick to aid officers who are shorthanded. Smith said he would welcome help from any citizen when an arrest gets out of hand. As for Saturday's events:
I don't think in general we would put them up on a skirmish line. We'd have them more in the background guarding a building, making sure windows don't get broken. Looks like they were short on officers and long on protesters [that day].