NEWS

Private Security Guards Have Become a Last Resort for Public Safety


Michael Bock was still on his way into work for his shift as a private security guard when he came upon his first emergency of the day. He drove into downtown Portland, Ore., a little after 6 a.m., and saw a man swinging a hatchet and chasing someone into the street. Bock, 46, pulled over and rolled down his window. “Security!” he yelled. “Can we please settle down?”

“He put his hands on my drugs,” the man with the hatchet shouted. “I’m going to kill him!” He jabbed his weapon at the air as the person he was chasing picked up a rock. Bock watched them circle each other and dialed 911. “A call taker will be with you as soon as possible,” the recording said, and he waited on hold as he steered his car farther into the street, wedging it between the two men, honking his horn and sending them off in opposite directions as a dispatcher answered the line.

“We had two transients in a street fight, but it looks like they’re dispersing,” Bock said.

“All clear?” the dispatcher asked. Bock glanced back toward the street, where one man was about to get on a bicycle with what appeared to be a gash in his arm, and the other was still carrying a hatchet and muttering to himself as he headed down a popular jogging trail.

“I guess so,” Bock said. “For now.”

He hung up and continued driving into one of the many American downtowns where one crisis now spirals into the next, as spiking rates of homelessness, drug overdoses, violent crime and psychosis threaten to overwhelm the public safety infrastructure once considered basic to the country’s major cities. Average police response times have increased by as much as 50 percent over the last several years in dozens of places, including New York City, New Orleans and Nashville. In Portland, a record-breaking number of daily emergencies has strained every part of the system: 911 hold times have quintupled since 2019, the average police response has slowed to nearly an hour, firefighters work overtime to handle more overdoses than actual fires, and each week there are no ambulances left to respond to hundreds of medical emergencies.

What has arrived into the void are thousands of private security guards hired by office buildings, coffee shops, stores, schools and parking lots in what has become one of the country’s fastest-growing industries, with annual revenue exceeding $40 billion. Most major U.S. cities now have at least three times as many security guards on the street as sworn police officers, even though guards typically operate with minimal oversight, less training and little power to enforce the law. Bock patrolled the city each morning on behalf of Echelon Protective Services in his family’s 2006 minivan without the benefit of lights or a siren, rolling down his window to cajole people into behaving with a mixture of charm, intimidation, commiseration and free cigarettes.

His job was mostly to help businesses deal with the impacts of public drug use and erratic behavior, and over the last few years he’d come to know dozens of regular offenders by name. There was Stephanie, who sometimes stole diapers for a newborn baby that existed only in her mind; and Christopher, whom Bock had resuscitated after an overdose only to see him smoking fentanyl again an hour later; and Stephen, who had a history of violence and was now standing naked in the middle of Third Avenue, wearing only his left sneaker, gyrating and yelling something about how he was a sumo wrestler.

Bock pulled over and dialed the Police Department’s nonemergency line to report a mental health crisis, but the call was disconnected. He called again and waited through a series of recordings. “When call volume exceeds the number of available phone lines, your call may be disconnected,” the recording said, and the line went dead.

“Are you kidding me?” Bock said. He sometimes waited on hold for several hours for a non-emergency call. He watched Stephen sit in the street as traffic backed up behind him, and with no other solution in sight, Bock walked into the road. He was 6-foot-5 and more than 350 pounds, armed with a gun, pepper spray and an expertise in jujitsu. But more often in his work, he preferred to rely on the aphorism he’d taped to his wall while studying to become a preacher: “Love is the devotion to the well-being of others without regard to the cost.”

“Stephen, how we doing today?” he asked, but Stephen didn’t seem to hear. He waved his arms at the sky and slumped toward the ground.

“Buddy, this doesn’t look fun,” Bock said. “How can we help you get into a better situation?”

He retrieved some secondhand clothes from the trunk of his minivan and laid them near the street, but Stephen didn’t move. Bock offered water, granola bars, cigarettes, sunscreen and a banana, but Stephen either didn’t notice or didn’t care. He continued to stumble in the street for another 45 minutes, attracting a crowd of eight private security guards from five different companies, a few dozen passers-by and then finally a police officer, who pulled up to the intersection in his cruiser and rolled down his window.

“Sorry,” he told Bock, “I’m on the way to a high-priority call.” He promised to circle back later if no one else was available to respond.

“I get it,” Bock said. “We’re all doing the best we can.”

It was a phrase he repeated to himself several times each day when his patience started to wane and he could feel the frustration hardening in his chest: They were all doing their best. The police officers whose active patrol force had shrunk by 20 percent to crisis levels because of attrition, recruiting challenges and the impact of calls to defund the police. The people sleeping on sidewalks as rents soared to record highs and shelters filled to capacity. The addicts who could either wait in line at 6 a.m. for the outside chance of a spot in rehab or numb their pain with another fentanyl pill for the going price of 50 cents. They were all suffering together through the morass of a damaged society.

“Our entire first responder system in this city, according to the people who run it, is 20 years behind the ball and critically understaffed,” the mayor said last year at a City Council meeting. The city itself had increasingly turned to the same Band-Aid fix as everyone else, spending more than $4 million a year on private security guards to help protect parks, water treatment facilities, parking garages and city hall.

The booming industry was nobody’s idea of a perfect or comprehensive solution. More than a dozen security guards in Portland had been accused of assault or harassment, and one was convicted of murder earlier this year after fatally shooting a customer outside of a Lowe’s store. Guards in Oregon were sometimes trained and certified in as little as 16 hours, and more than 100 companies operated in downtown Portland on any given night under different policies and company rules.

Echelon was one of the most proactive, with more than 75 guards who patrolled the city 24 hours a day. At least 400 fed-up local businesses paid Echelon a monthly fee to run interference with homeless people by building relationships, offering resources to people with addictions and mental illness, buying their breakfasts, replacing their shoes, reversing their overdoses and de-escalating their episodes of psychosis.

Bock’s previous security job had been at a company that stationed him outside a grocery store as a deterrent to shoplifting and told him to avoid interacting with customers. “A human scarecrow,” was how Bock described that role, so he chose to move to Echelon in 2021 despite the long hours and middle-class pay, because he wanted to be part of the glue that pieced his hometown back together.

He drove his minivan into the city for another 12-hour shift and started walking loops around Chinatown, where tents crowded the sidewalk and the challenge each day was deciding which crisis to solve. Synthetic drug overdoses in the city had increased more than 500 percent in the last four years. Shooting incidents had risen from a total of 413 in 2019 to more than 1,300 last year. After initially cutting more than $10 million from the Police Department’s budget in the wake of social justice protests in 2020, the city had tried to reverse course by restoring funding, offering bonuses for new hires, and requesting the help of 100 Oregon state troopers. But it typically took up to 18 months to hire and train each new police officer, and in the meantime, there were often fewer than a dozen officers patrolling all of downtown.

Now Bock watched a man lie down on a park bench and begin chewing on what looked like a .357 magnum bullet. A 65-year-old rolled down the sidewalk in a wheelchair while carrying a spear fashioned out of tent poles. A man with a massive cut on his forehead wobbled and nearly fell on the sidewalk.

“You OK, buddy?” Bock asked. “It looks like you’re having a rough morning. My name’s Michael. What’s your name?”

“Name is my name,” the man said. He laughed and adjusted a filthy bandage that covered half his face so Bock could see the full extent of his injuries. His nose was split in half, his lips were swollen to twice their size, and a deep gash ran across the center of his forehead. He looked to be no more than about 20, and Bock studied him and thought about his own three teenage stepchildren. He’d married their mother in 2015 after a decade of loneliness, and even beyond his faith, it was his new relationships with his children that had taught him how to build trust by being patient and kind.

“You got beat up pretty bad,” Bock said. “I’m an E.M.T. If you’ll sit with me, I’ll get you cleaned up.”

The man laughed again and started talking to his reflection in a window as Bock considered what to do next. The man didn’t seem to know his own name. His speech was slurred. He kept falling over. It was possible he was high on drugs or suffering from psychosis. But there was also a chance his mental state had been altered by the head trauma of a major assault, and his condition had been deteriorating for hours as he wandered around a city where nobody had the bandwidth to pay attention.

If he was in danger and unable to care for himself, the police had legal power to institute a temporary mental health hold and force him into a hospital. Bock dialed 911.

“I’ve got a John Doe here who looks like he’s been bludgeoned, and he’s not making any sense,” he told the dispatcher. “It’s really important he gets some treatment.”

“All right, thanks for looking after him,” the dispatcher said. “Let’s get him some help.”

Bock stayed with the man and listened for sirens, and this time it took only a few minutes for an ambulance to arrive. Two paramedics evaluated the man and agreed he needed emergency care. A police officer showed up moments later and signed a temporary mental health hold for “John Doe.” They strapped the man onto a stretcher as he continued to laugh and mumble, and Bock reached for his shoulder.

“OK, my friend,” Bock said. “Next time I see you, you’ll be doing a lot better.”

There were moments when he believed he was making progress and the city was finding its way back. But then there were all the other times, when it seemed as if all 400 of Echelon’s clients were requesting help from the company’s 24-hour dispatcher as soon as he got into his minivan.

“Two guys fighting on the side of our garbage chute,” read one alert, from a coffee shop.

“Man threatening people with a dagger,” read another, from an art gallery.

“Buffet of misery. Fentanyl users passed out all around the apartment building.”

Bock started driving toward the apartments, but then he saw a medical examiner taping off another one of Echelon’s properties with crime tape. It was a parking garage, and Bock pulled over and saw a man sprawled on the curb under a blue medical tarp. “Oh no. What happened?” Bock asked, even though he already knew. There had been 22 reported overdoses on Portland’s public sidewalks in the last 36 hours. “It’s rinse-and-repeat at this point,” the medical examiner said. He estimated that based on the body’s temperature, this victim had been dead for more than an hour, which meant dozens of commuters had walked by his body during rush hour before one stopped to check his breathing and call 911.

Bock scanned the surrounding blocks for more victims, because one overdose sometimes indicated that a particularly deadly batch of drugs had arrived on the street. He counted eight people nodding out in doorways and three more actively smoking fentanyl, including one person with facial wounds Bock recognized from the day before. It was the same John Doe, and he’d been discharged from the hospital back to the street with nowhere to go and no plan for continued treatment. He was still stumbling and falling with a hospital intake bracelet on his wrist and a fentanyl smoking straw in his hand.

Bock heard a commotion behind him and turned to see a woman trying to get his attention.

“They’re passed out in every alcove,” she said, pointing to an office building down the street. “It’s bad. The second guy was unresponsive.”

“Unresponsive like not breathing?” Bock asked.

She said she wasn’t sure, so Bock started jogging down the block to check the alcoves. He pounded his fist into his hand and kicked a plastic cup on the sidewalk, sending it flying into the street. “How can any of this be considered normal?” he said. He’d revived at least 20 drug users in the last few years, and he always carried eight doses of naloxone. “Jesus juice,” his colleagues sometimes called it, but lately the medication wasn’t always enough to reverse an overdose. Synthetic fentanyl had gotten stronger, and it seemed to Bock as if all of Portland had increased its level of tolerance. The city had decriminalized small amounts of drug possession. Meanwhile, a single downtown firehouse reported that it had responded to 300 overdoses in July alone, and there were 29 other firehouses in the city.

“Hey, my man, are you OK in there?” Bock asked, when he reached the first doorway. A person was lying motionless underneath a blanket. Bock nudged the blanket until he heard a groan. “Sorry. I was worried about you breathing,” Bock said, as he continued along the perimeter of the building.

The next alcove was occupied by a man in his 60s: “We can’t do this smoking thing in front of the building,” Bock told him. “See that guy over there? He just died of an overdose. I don’t want that to be you.”

He kept walking around the building and nudging people awake until he was back at the parking garage, where the victim’s body had already been bagged and taken to the morgue. The crime tape was gone, and the sidewalk was scrubbed clean. Cars drove in and out of the garage as another man sat down on the sidewalk, opened his backpack and pulled out a straw and a lighter. Bock walked back to his minivan, slammed the door and called his wife.

“I’m having a really hard morning,” he said. “It’s too much. It gets worse every week.”

“You can’t fix everything,” she said. “Remember to breathe.”

“I’m trying, but I’m neck deep in other people’s pain,” he said. “I’m out here with a piece of plywood, and I’m trying to hold back the whole ocean.”

He wiped his eyes and took a deep breath. Then, a while later, he checked his phone and saw a new message from an Echelon client, a parking garage in the center of town. “DISTURBANCE,” the subject line read, and Bock scanned down to the message.

“There’s a woman trying to take another woman’s child.”

Bock wove through traffic and ran into the garage to join one of his Echelon colleagues, who’d arrived a minute earlier. A boy stood near the wall, shaking and pressed against his mother. “That lady tried to take me,” he said. He pointed at a woman with no shoes and a tie-dyed shirt who stood across the garage.

“Is this a legit kidnapping?” Bock asked his colleague.

“Attempted,” the other guard said, and he pulled Bock aside and told him what he knew. Heba Wasef had driven into the city to take her 7-year-old son shopping at Nike, and they were returning to their car when a woman started following them, hissing at the boy, grabbing his hands, and saying she needed to protect him from being abused. She claimed the boy’s identity had been switched in a microwave and he actually belonged to her. She tried to tug him away from Wasef. The mother held onto her son, ran for her car and called 911 as the woman chased them into the garage. “Thank God you’re here,” Wasef told the security guards.

The problem was that, as guards, they lacked the authority to make an arrest for a crime they hadn’t witnessed. Only the police had the power do that, and they would need both a perpetrator and a victim at the scene in order to make the arrest. That meant the Echelon guards had to somehow keep everyone in the garage — not with force, but with persuasion or distraction for however long it took the police to arrive.

Bock picked up his phone at 1:28 p.m. and called 911 with an update. “All parties are still here and the child is crying,” he said. “The sooner you guys can get here, the better.”

The other Echelon guard spoke to the child while Bock approached the perpetrator. She was punching at beams of sunlight that filtered through the ceiling into the garage. Bock sat down a few feet away. “Hey, sweetheart. How are you doing?” he said.

“I don’t like you following me,” she said. “You’re really big, and I’m really small.”

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ll back away more. I’m just trying to say hello. I bet it’s been a long day, huh?”

“No, it’s been a long life, bro.”

“Would you like to sit and talk?” Bock asked. “It feels like it’s easier to get to know someone on a friendly basis.”

“I’m not your friend. I’m a missing person,” she said. She began to tell him about her background, interspersing her delusions with some facts about her life. Her name was Jade Wilder. She was 29. She’d moved to Portland from Arizona after a divorce in 2021, rented an apartment downtown, and started making deliveries for Amazon. She befriended some of the people living in tents near her apartment, and eventually one of them became her boyfriend. They’d started using fentanyl together, and now she’d been living for more than a year on the street, where she’d been arrested, hospitalized, assaulted and abused.

She grimaced and stared at the wall of the garage. “There’s blood all over these walls,” she said. “I feel very uncomfortable. I’m going to leave.”

She started to move toward the exit as Bock took out his phone. It had been 25 minutes since his last call to 911, and now he dialed again. “We’re trying to keep everyone calm, but it would be great if law enforcement could get here soon,” he said.

A few minutes later, the boy’s father, Ashraf Mousa, came running into the garage. Mousa had gotten a call from his wife at the gas station where he worked and driven 15 miles from the exurbs into the city. “Where are the police?” he shouted. “I swear to God, I could kill her myself! We need a big punishment.” He told Bock he was going to take his family home, because his son didn’t feel safe idling in a downtown garage a few dozen feet from his attempted kidnapper.

“I get it. I really do,” Bock said. “But the police don’t have a crime without a victim.”

“Why aren’t they here?” Mousa shouted. “It’s been forever. I don’t understand. This is like if someone kills someone. This is a big deal.”

“I agree,” Bock said. “I’m a father. I agree.”

“My son is very scared. I know him. He will be scared for years.”

Bock winced and checked his phone. Forty-six minutes since the first call to 911. He dialed a number for the police bureau’s central precinct and asked to speak to the sergeant in charge, but the receptionist told him that no one was available and no officers had been dispatched yet. The central precinct typically needed at least 17 officers on afternoon patrol to keep pace with the record volume of 911 calls, but at the moment the precinct was down to just eight officers patrolling an area of 41 square miles with more than 200,000 residents.

Bock leaned his head against the garage wall and closed his eyes. The system was overloaded. Everyone was trying their best. “I understand you guys are busy and have a lot going on,” Bock said. “How many calls are holding in front of us? Can you tell me that?”

The receptionist said she didn’t have that information. The guards’ only option was to continue stalling, so Bock talked to the boy’s father while the other guard offered Wilder his phone to make a call, thinking it might calm her down. She dialed an Arizona number to speak to her family, which had spent the last several years trying to get her help. Her mother, Shannon Starr, had moved to Portland part time to tend to Wilder on the street as her behavior became more confounding, until Starr began to wonder if her daughter was suffering not just from drug-induced psychosis but also from undiagnosed schizophrenia. Wilder shaved her head and spray painted her body. She refused to shower, threatened to kill herself and tried to jump out of her mother’s moving car. She began to fixate on children, saying she needed to save them from being sex-trafficked. Her family tried to intervene by moving her back to Arizona, or dropping her off at drug rehab, or begging the police to arrest her. Each attempt ended in defeat, and now their latest intervention was failing, too.

“No! You can’t keep trying to control me!” Wilder screamed into the phone. She hung up and ran out of the garage.

Bock chased after her, the boy’s father followed and several other security guards joined in pursuit as they raced into the heart of the city. “What’s wrong with all of you?” Wilder shouted, as she ran down the middle of the street. “Stop following me!”

“I’m calling 911 again,” Bock said.

“We’ve called a million times, and nobody comes!” the boy’s father said. He pounded his hand against a street sign and turned back toward his family. “There’s no police. It’s only security. I’m giving up.”

“Hi, this is another update to an existing call,” Bock told the 911 dispatcher, at 2:04 p.m., exactly 51 minutes after the mother’s first call to 911. “We’ve left the parking garage.”

At 2:06: “She’s screaming in the street and running.”

At 2:07: “I don’t know where the boy’s dad is at the moment. I can only keep track of so much. Forgive me. I’m not trying to be rude.”

He continued narrating his pursuit to the dispatcher as he followed 50 yards behind Wilder, until suddenly she doubled back in his direction. “Taze me!” she screamed. “I want to die. I will kill you. I will sacrifice my life.” She picked up a motorized scooter, tossed it into the street and then darted into oncoming traffic.

“No!” Bock shouted. “Honey, calm down. We want you to be safe.” Bock jogged behind her in the street, using his body to block traffic as he updated the dispatcher.

At 2:09: “We’re still moving. We’re westbound on Washington.”

At 2:12: “We’re staying half a block away from her. We’re speaking kindly. We’re doing everything we can to de-escalate the situation.”

At 2:14: “She’s at Starbucks now. She’s staying in there and screaming.”

At 2:17: “We’re outside by the food trucks.”

At 2:18: “I see officers! I see officers! Thank you.”

He led the officers over to Wilder, and they followed her into Pioneer Courthouse Square, an urban park in the epicenter of downtown. “OK. We’re good,” Bock said, as he handed off the chase to the police and sat down to catch his breath. It had taken one hour and six minutes for the police to arrive, but Echelon had managed to deliver them an attempted kidnapping suspect in severe mental distress, and now maybe something good would come of it.

Bock looked on as a police officer approached Wilder. “We just want to talk to you,” the officer said, but Wilder ran away and jumped into a public fountain. “Stay away from me or I’ll hurt somebody!” she shouted. “I’ve been abused. I’ll cover this city in blood.”

She scrambled to the top of the fountain and perched on a ledge 12 feet above the ground. Dozens of people in the square were watching now, and some took out phones to record. “Do a flip!” one of them shouted. The officers huddled together to make a plan for how they could end the spectacle without using force and also without triggering Wilder into more violence or even suicide. Eventually, one of them walked over toward Bock.

“Every time we try to engage, she goes into a heightened state,” the officer told him. “I’m assuming if we disengage, she’s going to get down and walk away.”

“I don’t know if that’s true,” Bock said.

“The thing is, I don’t have a victim at the moment,” the officer said. “We called the family, and they basically said they don’t want to deal with the police. So, if I don’t have a crime….”

Bock wiped a bead of sweat off his forehead. Maybe the victim’s family was blinded by anger at the moment, but there had to be another way. “OK, you need a crime. I respect that,” Bock said. “But where do we stand on a mental health hold?”

“It’s not worth us getting into a huge fight to take her to the hospital,” the officer said. “We only have eight officers working until the afternoon shift comes out. My idea is if we back away, she’s going to get up and go somewhere else.”

Bock stood there for a few seconds, trying to understand how the spectacle of the last 90 minutes could possibly result in nothing. He didn’t think that was a just result for the victim. It didn’t seem fair to Wilder, who posed a clear risk to herself and others. It wasn’t good for her family, or the city, or the next child who happened to be walking through downtown at the wrong time.

“I appreciate where you’re coming from, but you’re breaking my heart right now,” Bock said.

“That’s where we’re at, as much as it sucks,” the officer said. “I’m sorry.”

“Thank you. I understand,” Bock said. He stood in place at the edge of the square and watched as the police drove off and Wilder descended from the ledge, disappearing back into the city.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.


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