Investigating Guns with CIR's Shoshana Walter
Know the laws. Don't take their word for it. Understand that the worst offenders can fall outside of existing regulations.
Shoshana Walter is the Public Safety Reporter for The Center for Investigative Reporting based in San Francisco. In 2014, she and her team undertook the award-winning investigation, “Hired Guns,” which put a spotlight on America’s armed security industry and exposed how a lack of regulations and proper training has resulted in violent consequences.
Here you’ll find tips and insights from Walter to help you tell investigative stories involving guns most effectively.
What are your top three tips for investigating guns most effectively?
- Know the laws. Who is allowed under the law to own a gun? Who is prohibited from owning a gun?
For the Hired Guns project, we were able to find dozens of guards who are prohibited under federal law from owning or possessing guns, and yet were still licensed as armed guards. These included guards with court orders prohibiting gun ownership, restraining orders, mental health commitments and documented substance abuse problems.
How? To find those guards, we requested licensing databases from agencies that regulate armed guards in several states. Then, using a simple Excel function, we drew a random sample of about 400 guards from each state, and ran each name through criminal court records. I kept a printed list of the federal prohibited possessors on my cubicle wall, so I became familiar with the convictions that might disqualify a guard from possessing a gun.
- Sometimes the worst offenders fall outside of existing regulations.
Failed police officers with histories of violence frequently find second careers as armed guards. There are no outspoken advocates on this issue, and no laws prohibited police officers from becoming guards. But it's not hard to see how this could endanger public safety. Use common sense and sources to identify potential problems, then prove your point with data and examples.
How? To identify failed cops-turned-guards, we went back to the licensing agencies and requested disciplinary actions filed against armed guards. Then we collected those names and sent them to the state agencies that certify police officers (in California, this is called the Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training, or POST). Those agencies confirmed that some of the armed guards had prior law enforcement experience. We did additional work to confirm their identities and evaluate their track records in law enforcement. In Florida, for example, we found that 13 percent of disciplined armed guards were former law enforcement officers with disciplinary histories or failing grades on their law enforcement training or exams.
- Don't take their word for it.
The laws may look good on paper, and regulators may tell you that they are doing the best job ever, but request the records and talk to people on the inside to find out if that is really the case.
In California, for example, regulators are required to investigate security guard shootings. These investigations are off-limits to reporters, thanks to strict public records laws. But a search of court records and interviews with the victims of several security guard shootings proved revealing. For example, after Randy Hernandez' jaw was shattered in a security guard shooting, court records showed the regulatory agency had never interviewed the shooter or Hernandez. The agency closed the case and allowed the guard to keep his license. Ultimately, we found that regulators in several states rarely investigate or take action after a security guard shooting.
Drawing on the Hired Guns project, what were the three biggest challenges you encountered, and how did you overcome them?
- Finding data. To evaluate the impact of armed guards on public safety, we knew we needed data. But where? This question led us to several states with laws requiring guards or their employers to report security guard shootings to state regulators. We requested the reports and investigations, thinking they would prove to be a great source of information on security guard shootings. But when we got them, it became very obvious they were far from comprehensive. Many states never received the reports. When they did, the reports were often incomplete or biased in favor of the guard, and most regulators rarely investigated the shootings, allowing guards to keep their licenses and guns. Although not the one originally intended, this became a story in and of itself.
- Finding security guard shooting cases. Many security guard shootings are covered in the news, but most of the cases we covered in the stories were not. There are plenty of lawsuits, but how do you know where to look? Which names to search? This is where private investigators came in handy. Many private investigators also have a hand in the security industry, and serve as expert witnesses in security guard-related lawsuits. They are often closer than an attorney to the people involved in a case because they have tracked those people down and conducted interviews and investigations. Several cases highlighted in the Hired Guns project came from private investigators who had worked on security guard-related lawsuits. Through these intermediaries, I was able to learn the names of victims, witnesses and guards, and sometimes their contact information.
- Finding guards. It was a similar story with the guards who used their guns. Many of the cases highlighted in the project occurred many miles away. As a result, my first contact with guards and victims was often over the phone. Many victims and guards refused to answer or hung up when I called. I had the most luck knocking on doors. In one case, I hand-delivered a letter to the guard's house. A day later, he called. In another case, deposition in a civil case helped fill in the gaps, and provided a sense of the guard's perspective when he declined interviews. The important thing to remember is that a guard involved in a shooting is a person, too. Tell them you want to understand their perspective and listen.
What were the most useful resources you turned to during your investigation?
The International Association of Security and Investigative Regulators (IASIR) has a map allowing you to look up the regulatory agency in your state. Many regulatory agencies post highly useful information online, such as searchable databases of licensees, disciplinary actions and meeting minutes and videos, which you can peruse to find sources and whistleblowers.
Private Officer International, a membership group for security officers, blogs regular news stories related to the security profession. You can search the site for stories in your state.
Get a sense for the industry's corporate perspective by exploring the websites for major industry groups. On the national level, these are ASIS International and NASCO. These groups keep track of legislation and have a stance on standards and regulations. There are many groups on the state level, too.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics keeps track of stats on security guards, including average pay. They also employ statisticians who can advise you on trends and how to analyze the data.
Finally, you can now download and peruse Reveal's data, including training standards and background checks for armed guards in each state. View our interactive map here.
What other advice would you offer reporters or editors on this beat?
As the Chicago Tribune's Michael Berens says, "find the guy in the basement." There's someone in your state or county or city who is deeply concerned about the security industry. He or she will likely be deeply embedded in the industry, and not unbiased. This person may be a security company owner, for example, who wants to call out the competition. Like for any story, it is your job to vet and verify the information. But if you can find that person, he or she will likely have great documents, contacts and tips.