Columbia MO Oct 30 2016
Alex Dixon was on patrol at a south Columbia student housing complex on a Wednesday evening when he pulled up to a woman in an SUV that was parked illegally and near dozens of open parking spots.
“I’m waiting for someone,” the woman said to Dixon, a captain with Signal 88 Security, a private security firm in Columbia.
“Your car too good for a parking space?” Dixon replied.
Of all the parking spaces available, he wondered why she had to park there, so he directed her to move and she obliged.
The interaction was part of a typical night for Dixon, who usually begins his shifts at 7 p.m. and patrols a couple dozen apartment complexes, both in his Signal 88-marked SUV and on foot, until he finishes at about 6 a.m. He also oversees all of the company’s guards, both armed and unarmed, who either patrol or provide on-site security for businesses, apartment complexes and the University of Missouri College of Veterinary Science.
Throughout the last several years, as Columbia’s population has grown steadily to near 120,000, more and more people like Dixon are popping up around the city. More property managers are seeing a need for private security that, while the officers do not have police powers, can act as a deterrent or a first responder for low-level infractions that might not require a police response.
Security guards, Dixon said, look and listen for much the same things police do: property damage, disturbances and people in need of help. They also look for trash in parking lots or common areas, parking and lighting issues and anything else the property manager or owner requests. At some properties Dixon patrols, he locks the pool or clubhouse.
There are 14 security firms licensed in Columbia that provide armed or unarmed guards, according to records provided by the Columbia Finance Department. Those firms employ 43 people who have the necessary certification to carry a gun as they work, including Dixon. Signal 88 first was licensed as a business in the city in 2010 and changed its name from Signal 88 Columbia to Signal 88 Security in July 2015, when Doug Lane, a former Boone County sheriff’s deputy, bought the franchise from the national company.
Since 2010, eight business licenses have been issued to companies that provide guards for security purposes, including Signal 88. Many are offshoots or franchises of national or regional companies, such as Securitas, Citadel Security or Brink’s. During that same time, Columbia gained about 10,000 residents, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
When Lane joined Signal 88, he was the company’s only employee in Columbia. Now, he said, he has close to 40 people working at Signal 88. He and Dixon said there has been a growth in the industry for a few reasons, with one being that people are realizing Columbia police often do not have the resources to respond to every call, especially low-priority ones, in a manner as timely as residents expect. Lane said private firms are in the middle between law enforcement and residents.
“We want to be the last voice of reason before ‘stupid happens,’ is what I call it,” Lane said. “Before a bad decision is made that takes it to a level where law enforcement is needed.”
Guards are called and respond to noise complaints, trespassing, vandalism and sometimes, Dixon said, to check whether a fire or burglar alarm is legitimate.
“That’s keeping precious resources from the city from being expended to come and respond to something that didn’t need to be responded to in the first place,” Lane said.
As Lane’s franchise has grown, so have other security firms, including Citadel, which is based in Rifle, Colo. CEO Justin Hale, a Missouri native, said the branch in Columbia employs about 15 to 20 full-time people, including armed and unarmed guards. While his company has not seen as much growth as it has in its branches in Denver and Salt Lake City, he said the business in Columbia has grown between 10 and 15 percent every year since 2012, and about 25 percent last year. Citadel also provides security for some University of Missouri properties, Hale said, as well as homeowners associations in the area. As Columbia has grown, he said, the demand has increased.
“With that comes some great things, and with that comes some need for security and the types of calls for service we’re dealing with are changing,” Hale said.
In Citadel’s early days in Columbia, Hale said, the work mostly was patrolling areas looking for problems, but now his guards are called on to quell disturbances and break up parties.
Allied Barton Security Services has been licensed with the city since August 1996. Glenn Smith, owner of the St. Louis-based company, said the industry’s growth is not exclusive to Mid-Missouri.
“Security has been a growing field not only in Columbia but throughout the country,” Smith said.
Between 1996 and 2012, Smith said, growth in Columbia was gradual, but it has picked up since MU’s athletics joined the Southeastern Conference.
“I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or what,” he said.
Allied now has 25 guards working in Columbia, all unarmed and doing on-site security. Smith said he expects the industry to keep growing.
“You have population growth,” he said, “you’re going to need more security.”
Six companies in Columbia employ the 43 people licensed to carry a gun as a security guard, according to city records. The job of keeping track of all the applications, certifications and deciding whether to approve them falls to Columbia police Assistant Chief John Gordon.
A guard has to go through the police department and take a written test and a skills test to be licensed to be an armed security guard in the city. They also have to pass a background check. But with changes coming Jan. 1 to the state’s concealed carry law, namely that people will not need a permit to conceal a firearm, Gordon said there is a desire to revamp the ordinance that governs the permits.
Though he said it will take some time, Gordon hopes to change the ordinance to require all armed guards to have taken a concealed carry class before they can get their city licenses.
Gordon acknowledged police cannot always make it to low-priority calls quickly, a common refrain for officials who have said repeatedly in the last few years that the department is severely understaffed. People see those delayed response times and want another solution. Though he has not seen a large jump in people applying for armed guard permits over the last several years, Gordon said he has noticed the security business has been growing.
“It’s a niche in the market that’s never been filled,” Gordon said.
He compared it with the cab industry in Columbia. About 10 years ago, there were a handful of companies, and now there are several local cab companies and the ride-sharing app Uber.
“It’s just something that’s reached a point where this community has needed the services, and now they’re there.”
At Signal 88, Dixon and officers use their smartphones to write reports and, if necessary, take video that can be uploaded for the property owner or manager to watch. Their clients can view their reports in real time using specific software, and they include GPS tracks of the vehicles to ensure the guards did as many patrols as are in the contract.
“You could be down in Cancun — as long as you” have “internet access,” a client can check the reports, Lane said.
The method they use to write and input reports was not available just a few years ago. As technology continues to progress, Smith, Allied’s owner, said its use in security will grow. His company is looking into using robots for areas where safety is a concern, he said. The robot would be about 5 feet tall and be smart enough to engage with people in several languages, something that can help a guard or police officer communicate with a non-English speaker or resolve the situation.
Security companies also can use the surveillance cameras at some properties to do video patrols, Lane said, though his franchise does not have any such contracts anymore. Smartphone data costs were a concern for those contracts, he said.
Though times change, Lane said, the problems his employees and other guards deal with largely are the same: drunk and loud people, fights, property damage and trespassing.
Dixon, who was a police officer in Mexico, Mo., and La Grange, Mo., said working security has not changed much in the four years he has worked at Signal 88 but that “your environment changes. The properties have different issues, especially with the collegiate properties” because new students move in often and do not know him or what his role is.
If the nature of the job does not change much, it still can be unpredictable. Dixon once responded to a call at a one-building apartment complex in which a man was running around naked, covered in the filler of a stuffed animal.
He likely was high on marijuana and psilocybin mushrooms, Dixon said, and he found the man in his apartment.
“We got to the apartment that he was in and saw there was a gigantic, life-sized Pikachu, bottom-up” with the plush filler spilled all over the unit, he said.
Dixon does not know what the man was doing with the massive Pokémon doll, and he did not seem like he was too interested in finding out.