Vetting Armed Private Security Personnel

By Jonathan Mcconnell
Four hundred miles from land. The nearest vessel isn’t even showing up on the radar. A container ship is sailing in the middle of the ocean. A skiff approaches, what does the armed security guard do? No one would hear it if he popped off a few rounds. Sure the ammo count would be off, but he could say he spent that on zeroing the weapon.

This is a fight private maritime security companies operating off the coast of Somalia face every day. How does a firm find personnel with integrity that go beyond what is codified or the industry standard? How does it evaluate the mental capacity of someone to be fit for duty as a privately contracted armed security personnel? 

While the above may seem to be an extreme scenario, innocent fishermen have been killed in high-risk waters. In one case Italian marines onboard an Italian-flagged MT Enrica Lexie opened fire on a fishing boat, the St. Antony, thinking that it was a pirate ship, and killed two unarmed Indian fishermen on board. This case is still being investigated and has greatly strained relations between the two nations. 

While it takes a certain type of person to be able to take the life of another human being, it takes a mature professional to abstain from taking a life. Security personnel must realize that their work is not an exotic adventure and that taking the life of another human being is a decision wrought with far-reaching consequences for everyone involved.

Under U.S.C.G. Port Security Advisory (5-09), the Coast Guard gives the Minimum Guidelines for Contracted Security Services in High Risk Waters. It references the normal U.S. flag requirements for citizenry, but then references 18 U.S.C. 922(g).  Essentially, anyone who can legally possess a firearm in the United States qualifies to serve as privately contracted armed security. A low threshold may be fine for gun owners wanting to defend themselves or their families, but there should be a higher hurdle for those contracted to use deadly force on behalf of another. It is incumbent upon the firms hiring them to adopt enhanced standards.

While it may be easy to find personnel that meet this low legal threshold, it is far more difficult to properly evaluate and select a person with the wherewithal to make life and death decisions. Personal interviews are one thing, and it is surprising how many applicants will exclaim in an interview that they just want to get out there and kill somebody. Thus, most firms rely on references of those who have served alongside the applicant in combat.

As retired Army Lt. Col. Dave Grossman observed in the book, On Killing, “[t]here is strong evidence that there exists a genetic predisposition for aggression. In all species the best hunter, the best fighter, the most aggressive male, survives to pass his biological predispositions on to his descendants. There are also environmental processes that can fully develop this predisposition toward aggression; when we combine this genetic predisposition with environmental development we get a killer.”

No doubt it takes a special person to be able to take the life of another person. However, it takes the right person to make the right decision not to kill someone. Numerous times, security personnel have been approached by fishermen angry that the merchant vessel is sailing straight through their nets. These fishermen have AK-47s, just like pirates, and aren’t afraid to fire a few rounds in the air to show their frustration with these large vessels interfering with their livelihood. However, this does not warrant a death sentence.

A situation such as this can be resolved through proper training. But even proper training may not help an applicant who “just wants to kill someone.” Thus, the need for careful screening is of paramount importance.

New personnel are usually sent out first with veterans of the business. They spend time getting to know them — understanding what makes them tick. But more than anything, ensuring that they have a moral compass that is pointed in the right direction — an evaluation that is best made with peers as opposed to the administrative types.

Drug screening is also critical. Currently, the Coast Guard mandates a five panel drug test to determine whether prospective shipboard security personnel have recently used illegal drugs. However, for about $20 more, a 12 panel drug test can be used to determine whether an applicant is on prescription medication such anti-depressants or Suboxone, which is used to treat opiate addictions. This is a small price to pay to ensure that personnel who will be making life and death decisions are mentally and emotionally prepared to make the right decision.Scrupulous administrative oversight will buttress the preventive measures described above.

Round counts of  security teams is also essential. The round count is verified by the team leader and the master of the vessel upon disembarkation. If that number changes at all throughout the voyage, it is recorded. If there is ever a discrepancy in the round count, then there is a full investigation into the missing round. Clerical errors and typos are not accepted as excuses. Operators must treat each round as if it is a part of the serialized inventory.

In the end, security firms must treat the law as a floor, not a ceiling, when it comes to operational standards. A well-drafted, and carefully implemented code of conduct is a must.

In addition, clients who hire a firm bear responsibility to conduct thorough due diligence to ensure that they are dealing with a reputable company. Requesting a copy of its hiring packets and the results of drug tests is the first step in ensuring that the firm is providing personnel who are prepared to make the life-and-death decisions requisite in this line of work.

By going the extra mile in adopting standards for its personnel, private maritime security companies can ensure that their industry, and the larger private military contractor industry, will remain viable well into the future.

Jonathan McConnell is the founder, president and CEO of Meridian Global Consulting, a private maritime security company. He is a former Marine Corps officer and a combat veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. The opinions expressed are solely those of the author.

Topics: Homeland Security, MaritimePort Security

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