In parking lots, parks and apartment complexes across Central Oregon, private security officers are often seen patrolling for trespassers, running off loiterers or double-checking door locks late at night.
But spot a security officer from a distance, or a security patrol vehicle rolling down the street, and they can be easily confused with police, with uniforms and vehicles sometimes quite similar to those used by local law enforcement.
Eriks Gabliks, director of the state Department of Public Safety Standards and Training, said Oregon applies relatively few regulations on what security vehicles or uniforms can look like. The state agency licenses both law enforcement officers and private security personnel.
In Oregon, only accredited police and fire departments are permitted to use blue-and-red flashing emergency lights, Gabliks said, while security companies that choose to use flashers can use the amber color similar to those used by tow trucks.
In some states, private security companies are restricted to certain uniform colors so as not to create confusion with police. Such a rule does not apply in Oregon but has been adopted by some local governments.
Bend adopted an ordinance in 2010 that prohibits the use of a uniform, badge or vehicle “similar” to those used by the Bend Police Department. Department spokesman Lt. Clint Burleigh did not return calls seeking clarification on how “similar” is interpreted.
Starting this year, the state is taking a closer look at the names used by private security companies. Gabliks said the new rule came about when Rep. Chris Gorsek, a Democrat and former police officer, of Gresham, took issue with the names used by two private security companies, the Oregon Coast Protective Division and the Albany Merchant Police.
While the Oregon Coast and Albany companies will be able to keep their names, Gabliks said that in the future, companies that attempt to register a name using the word police or the initials PD will be denied.
Nick Thompson, CEO of Bend-based Patrol Services International, said his company’s use of policelike uniforms and vehicles is no accident. Private security’s primary role is prevention and deterrence, he said, and the “tennis shoes and baseball cap” look favored by some security companies doesn’t provide that.
“You see an officer in a professional uniform, armed, it’s not a joke, and it provides much more of a command presence,” he said. “It really, really is effective.”
The company uses Dodge Charger patrol vehicles, a make and model widely used by law enforcement agencies, and dark uniforms similar to those worn by accredited police officers. Thompson said in the 11 years he’s been in business, more private security companies have adopted the look his firm has used since the beginning.
“It was unusual at the time, but you’re seeing it more and more across the country now,” Thompson said.
Security Pros Inc. takes the opposite approach, using a fleet of red-and-yellow Hondas and light blue uniforms. President and CEO Brian Shawver said he adopted the color scheme for the same reason McDonald’s and Les Schwab did — they’re the most visible colors day or night.
Shawver said he grew up in a law enforcement family and has concluded blurring the line between law enforcement and private security is a bad idea.
“Ultimately, it ticks off law enforcement; it’s not something they want,” Shawver said. “And I think with the public, it makes them scared ‘it’s the police’ or they think ‘oh, they’re cop wannabes; we’re not going to listen to them.’”
Shawver said he believes using uniforms and vehicles too similar to law enforcement can create unneeded hostility between his company’s security officers and the people they encounter while on patrol. He said simply being visible is an effective deterrent against trespassing, vandalism and similar low-level offenses that make up the majority of security work.
“We know where security begins and ends, and where the police begins. And our role is in helping the police get results,” he said. “We don’t try to be them; we try to be their best witness.”
— Reporter: 541-383-0387, firstname.lastname@example.org