Scarecrow Cops

Sometimes the only difference between an ex-con and a security guard is a uniform.

About midnight on January 13, Iris Siff, 58, a woman who often worked late on her job as managing director of Houston’s Alley Theatre, was robbed and strangled in her office. The following day, the police took into custody Robert Taylor, 30, an employee of Security Guard Services, Inc., who was on duty at the alley at the approximate time of Mrs. Siff’s death. Investigators said that a note found near her body matched samples of Taylor’s handwriting, and reporters turned up the information that the security guard was an ex-convict. In September, after serving forty months of a prison term, Robert Taylor had been paroled in Ohio.

Taylor was not charged in the killing of Mrs. Siff. After holding him for four days, the police let him go. A tipster had given them another suspect: Clifford X. Phillips, 47. Police detectives traced him to California and in mid-February arrested him there. He was returned to Houston and indicted for murder.

In a confession to the press, Phillips said that on the night he killed Mrs. Siff, he had entered the Alley through an unlocked door, although he had a key. From old news accounts and perhaps from leaks in the criminal records system, reporters learned that Phillips, like Taylor, had a busy criminal past. He had been in and out of jail since 1952 and in 1970 had been imprisoned in New York for the killing of his three-year-old son. After leaving prison, Philips hunted for work as a house painter, but in October he, like Taylor, had come knocking where jobs were plentiful: in the private security industry in Houston. Clifford X. Phillips was Robert Taylor’s predecessor at the guard post in the Alley Theatre.

News about the criminal records of Taylor and Phillips rattled and worried apartment tenants and office workers, who trust in the guards hired to sit in building foyers. Almost everyone in Houston lives a part of his life under the presumed protection of private security services. Office buildings, apartment complexes, residential neighborhoods, and factories are all patrolled by private guards. Guards are on duty at some schools and churches and at most events that draw a crowd: dances, carnivals, even weddings and funerals. The confidence placed in security guards is based largely on respect for uniforms and is often unwarranted. While most guards are well-intentioned men whose chief aim is to earn an honest living, Houston police files are spotted with reports about guards who put on uniforms in bad faith. Last November, for example, Houston policeman Monte R. Fogle wrestled with a chain-wielding intruder at a Houston industrial site. After a chase, other policemen arrested the suspect, who had escaped his grasp: a security guard, in uniform. That same month, M. A. Linn, an Intercontinental Airport policeman, detained a man who attempted to board a flight while carrying a pistol, a nightstick, a can of chemical Mace, and a supply of ammunition. Linn’s suspect was a uniformed guard, too. In March, guard Lang Dac Nguyen of Houston was charged with arson; investigators say he set fire to the building he was guarding.

These stories – and others could be told – are illustrative of a grave and dangerous problem in Texas: our guard services do not know who they are hiring to protect us. It is all too easy for a man with a criminal past to find work as a guard, and the profession – if it can be called that – is attractive to crooks, because it gives them a chance to exploit positions of trust. On a guard job, a felon can learn where the unlocked doors and unwatched treasures are and how to foil the security systems designed to protect us and our valuables.

Early in February I went to Houston to test hiring and training practices in the private security industry, by applying for security guard jobs under paper-thin pretenses. My objective was simple: to get employment offers from companies across the industry. Over the course of three weeks I applied for work at eleven companies, always telling the sort of lies that a felon might tell. One turned me away when, as a test, I said that I didn’t have a driver’s license. Of the other ten, six cleared me for hiring, and I never heard from the rest. Four issued me uniforms with orders to report for work, and I actually worked for two. Nobody discovered that I was lying. Nobody turned me down for a job. Nowhere did I find hiring safeguards sufficient to keep a Robert Taylor or a Clifford X. Phillips from wearing a badge of trust.

On the Friday morning of the week I arrived in the city, after looking over twenty or thirty ads for guards in the morning editions of the Post and the Chronicle, I decided to apply at a company located in the Westpark district in West Houston. I chose Majors Security Services as my target for the commonest of reasons: it was near the apartment where I was staying. Its office, on Rampart, was in a complex of low, flat-roofed buildings designed like a self-storage center, with an overhead door to serve each tenant. Several of these cubicles were home to small tax, consulting, and research firms. I found the office I was looking for next door to a Chinese wholesale grocery. Majors Security may not be the pride of

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