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When private security guards shoot someone on the job, SC law treats them like police

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On a private South Carolina island, a fight ended in death and legal questions when a security guard, sent to the scene ahead of deputies, shot and killed a man last week.

Authorities said Beaufort County deputies were on their way to a domestic disturbance call that Tuesday but asked two Fripp Island Security officers, who patrol the island, to intervene until they arrived.

By the time deputies got there, according to the Sheriff’s Office, one of the private security officers had shot the homeowner, Thomas Steffner. Deputies noted the guard “needed to use deadly force to terminate an active threat;” authorities said Steffner showed a gun.

Such a shooting is an anomaly in South Carolina but lays bare a regulation system that sometimes blurs the lines between private security and public protection. The officer will be treated like law enforcement, with his or her name withheld from the public until the state is done investigating.

A gray area

Modified in 2000, state law says on-duty private security officers have “the authority and arrest power given to sheriff’s deputies” on the property where they work. With their employer’s permission and weapons training, they’re allowed to use force, even lethal force, when on the job.

Private security has been on the rise for years with businesses and neighborhoods as sworn officers focus on community relations, experts told The Post and Courier. Businesses and neighborhoods who can afford to do so often hire private security to supplement their patrols.

“You’re going to see more and more of this potential problem,” said Sean Griffin, a criminal justice professor at The Citadel. “There’s always been this gray area ... but the rise of private security has been a huge issue around the country because more and more jurisdictions are well willing to fund police.”

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” said Geoffrey Alpert, a criminal justice professor at the University of South Carolina. “Should this be a routine situation? No. ... But (deputies and private officers) should have a relationship, they should know who’s doing what and they should know who’s going to take action.”

Jody Lynch, a private officer who trains security instructors at Trident Technical College, said the pandemic has prompted more cooperation between private and public officers, like when she helped a small department monitor a protest.

The S.C. Department of Corrections, which has struggled with understaffing, has trained private security officers to guard prisoners at Columbia hospitals so correctional officers can stay at their assigned posts.

Agency spokeswoman Chrysti Shain said the deal has at times freed up 30 correctional officers since each hospitalized inmate requires two guards. The department hopes to expand the program to other areas of the state.

Less training, similar privileges

Both private security officers and sworn law enforcement officers are regulated by the State Law Enforcement Division, which sets training standards and certifies the private officers. SLED is in charge of investigating any misconduct, but Alpert said he’s never heard of another state where the private citizen under investigation would be treated like a sworn officer.

While police officers and sheriff’s deputies must train for hundreds of hours at the S.C. Criminal Justice Academy in Columbia, private officers can train for eight hours to get a basic license, with an additional eight hours of firearms training if they’ll be armed on the job.

Guidelines for private guards’ firearms training outline a series of exercises for students, who must hit a man-size target with at least 80 percent of the rounds they fire. As in the field, they must call out commands before opening fire, and several drills are designed to train the students out of the instinct to fire each time they draw their guns.

“I want to see South Carolina security be the best in the nation, and I know SLED wants to see South Carolina security be the best in the nation,” Lynch said. “Security’s here to stay. We just need to make sure they’re trained.”

While SLED investigates, the officer in question can’t be armed at work. If SLED finds he acted improperly, penalties could include fines or license revocation for both him and the company. The company accepts civil liability for its officers’ actions, and the officer could face criminal charges if a grand jury doesn’t find the shooting justified.

In the Fripp Island incident, the sheriff’s incident report lists the security department among responding officers. But those officers weren't wearing body cameras like police do, to capture evidence indicating whether the shots were fired in self-defense.

SLED noted that the Sheriff’s Office dispatched private security to the call, which sheriff’s Maj. Bob Bromage said was within the security officer’s regular patrol area.

SLED and the Fripp Island Property Owners Association didn’t respond to questions about the property borders.

SLED said the shooting was the 42nd officer-involved shooting of 2020 and the first involving a security officer. In 2019, there were 45 officer-involved shootings in South Carolina. None of those involved a security officer.

Reach Sara Coello at 843-937-5705 and follow her on Twitter @smlcoello.

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