U.S. News


What the Police, and Congress, can learn from Private Security Companies

Ten years ago, the U.S. Congress, concerned about the behavior and competence of Private Security Companies (PSCs), directed the Defense Department to identify “operational and business practice standards” for PSCs and require compliance with these standards in all Defense Department contracts for security services in contingency operations. As the Director for Armed Contingency Contractor Programs and Policies for the Department of Defense, I was responsible for facilitating this work.

The outcome was national and international management system standards specific to private security company operations, built on guidance in use by many U.S. police departments and internationally recognized law enforcement and human rights initiatives. Originally intended for the Defense Department, these standards are used in 48 countries, providing security assistance for both public and private sector organizations. In the wake of recent allegations of widespread police brutality and concern regarding the use of force by police, community activists, Congress, and the president are now calling for nationwide standardization of police. The success of PSC quality assurance management standards can serve as a model for similar national management standards for police.

On June 16, 2020, the president issued an executive order requiring the Attorney General’s Office to issue standards for police use of force, and for certification of police to those standards. Standardization in the use of force and use of force training is necessary, but not sufficient. The use of force is only the outcome of training and procedures that lead to an encounter where force is used. Standardization, therefore, must address more than just that outcome. The president, some police departments, and the Fraternal Order of Police seem to recognize that. Beyond the use of force training, they see the need for broader national, consensus model standards, based on best practices for all police departments.

A major difficulty in implementing national standards is the decentralized nature of the American police force. Although federal guidelines exist, there is no requirement to follow those guidelines. In many cases, these guidelines may not be applicable or appropriate for a particular police jurisdiction. There are 18,000 different police agencies across the country. Each of these police departments works within local, state, or tribal jurisdictions with their own societal and legal contexts. These contexts may meet unique needs in one locale and be totally inappropriate in another. Even laws governing the use of force for both police and civilians vary in minor and sometimes significant ways from state to state. The use and types of lethal and nonlethal weapons (less-lethal technology) also vary. One single standard for all 18,000 police departments may seem both impractical and inappropriate.

So, are national policing standards achievable or even desirable? Yes! The example of developing national – and subsequently international – standards for private security company operations can serve as a model for how that might be done.

Between 2003 and 2008, the U.S. government created hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts for private security services. These contracts were necessary to protect civilian reconstruction efforts; they were particularly necessary due to the decision of the Coalition Provisional Authority to disestablish the Iraqi police. Inappropriate use of force by some of these PSCs is well known. Less well known were other violations of human rights norms and the inability of some companies to perform contracted services on time or to minimally acceptable levels of performance. In 2008, Congress began to take legislative action to address these concerns and the 2011 National Defense Authorization Act required the Defense Department to develop and implement operational and business practice standards for PSCs.

In approaching this requirement, DoD understood that only a minority of contracts for PSC services supported the U.S. government, or any government – even in Iraq. Outside of Iraq, estimates place 80% or more of PSC contracts in the private sector. The standards developed by DoD had to include that other 80%. This was necessary for two reasons. First, because misconduct on the part of one PSC affects the reputation of all PSCs. Second, to build up a base of potential vendors, the standard required in DoD contracts had to be applicable to PSC services for other clients, whether government or private sector, operating in many different countries or legal jurisdictions. To encourage as many PSCs as possible to adopt them, the standards had to be applicable to PSC operations in all of these contexts. The format for management standards recognized by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) made this possible.

Management standards describe what needs to be addressed in an organization’s policies and procedures, with broad guidance for what the elements of those procedures need to contain. This guidance is derived from recognized good practices. For the PSC standards, good practices were obtained from lessons learned in the field and recent international initiatives, such as The Montreux Document and the International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers. How an organization captures those broad requirements in a way that suits the specific operational and legal environment will vary from organization to organization.

Using the example of the PSC Operations Standard (ANSI/ASIS PSC.1), Requirement 9.5.2 is Use of Force and Use of Force Training. It requires that a PSC must have a training program for both weapons qualification and lists required elements in use of force training (including steps to avoid use of force, necessity, and reasonableness.) In drafting this requirement, the committee referred to a continuum of force procedures in use by various police departments of the United States, input from the US. Department of Justice, and the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. However, like the situation within the United States, each country has its own laws governing the use of force varying in both minor and significant ways. Recognizing this, the standard directs PSCs to develop use of force procedures specific to their operational requirements and legal restrictions. These procedures must include, and may not be less restrictive than, the elements of Requirement 9.5.2. Similarly, procedures for weapons training and qualification, while meeting the requirements of 9.5.2 of the standard, must address the laws and regulations applicable to the PSC, the weapons used by that PSC, the degree of proficiency demanded by potential clients, and the desire for the PSC to qualitatively stand out from their competitors.

Similar considerations apply to police. A national police standard must include common principles, such as existing Department of Justice criteria for necessary and reasonable use of force, and the requirements to be published per the June 16 Executive Order. At the same time, these standards must enable police departments to develop procedures consistent with the laws in their jurisdiction. Many police departments, associations, and federal agencies (e.g., the FBI, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Centers, and the Tactical Officer’s Association) have existing training programs that can meet jurisdiction-specific requirements.

Other requirements specified in the PSC standard include leadership and organization, risk management; selection and background screening of candidates, operational control; resources, roles, responsibility, and authority; competence, training and awareness; interior and exterior communication; prevention and management of undesirable events; complaints and grievance mechanisms; and importantly — performance evaluation and continuous improvement. All of these could easily apply to police functions.

Perhaps most noteworthy about the private security standards is the incorporation of respect for human rights. Requirement 9.5.1 requires the organization to implement procedures to treat all persons with respect for human rights and to report non-conformance. This is not just an add-on or set-aside section. Establishing a culture of respect for human rights is integral to almost every section and requirement within the standard. The underlying idea in developing the PSC standard was that respect for human rights will make the delivery of security services more effective. Conversely, violation of human rights contributes to insecurity; insecurity of the general population, and insecurity for the people or activities the PSC is supposed to protect. The same should be true for the police.

Just as important as what is in the standard is how they are developed. American National Standards for management systems are consensus-based performance standards. Drafting committees reflect a balanced representation from the industry or services being standardized, the users of that service, and other interested parties. For the American National Standard for PSC operations, the committee consisted of 196 subject matter experts from 20 different countries. In addition to PSCs, government representatives, and commercial clients of PSCs, participants included experts from human rights organizations, universities, and the United Nations. With all of that diversity, the committee achieved consensus on what the standards for a PSC should be. Furthermore, PSCs adopting this standard claim that implementation improves the quality of their services and the efficiency of their business operations.

Georges Clémenceau, the prime minister of France during the First World War, said that war is too serious to be left to soldiers. Similarly, national policing standards are too important to be left only to police. The American concept of “We the People,” leads to the importance of consensus among all of those who rely on effective and just policing. The consensus-based process standards in developing PSC standards produced credibility and broad acceptance. This can also apply to national policing standards.

The development and implementation of quality assurance management standards for PSCs can be a model for national police standards. The multi-stakeholder process of standards development can increase public confidence in police and policing nationwide. At the same time, the modular nature of these standards encourages the use of department-level procedures and technical standards unique to the specific social, legal, and environmental contexts of individual police departments. Properly understood and developed, these standards will answer the call for national standards while providing services that meet the specific need of the population being served.