Ch 2 investigation of HOA security guard traffic stops leads to state probe

RAW: HOA security traffic stop

ATLANTA — State investigators are now looking into whether private security guards are allowed to make traffic stops, after a Channel 2 Action News investigation caught them in the act.

Since the report first aired back in May, Channel 2 Action News has heard from drivers in a half-dozen neighborhoods, across five local counties, who said they've been pulled over by security guards who are not police officers.

"I saw your original story on this and I said that's just not right," former police officer Bob Lowe told investigative reporter Jodie Fleischer.

Lowe was pulled over earlier this year by a security guard in the St. Ives neighborhood in Johns Creek. He filed a complaint with Georgia's Board of Private Detectives and Security Agencies, which falls under the purview of the Georgia Secretary of State.

"I think everybody should obey traffic laws and we want to keep the streets safe. But I don't like the idea of wannabe police officers stopping people," said Lowe.

As former director of the Northeast Georgia Police Academy, Lowe was responsible for training police officers to make safe traffic stops. He said there's nothing wrong with private gated neighborhoods setting their own speed limits, installing stop signs, or even writing tickets, he just thinks traffic stops should be limited to trained, certified law enforcement officers.

"A traffic stop is the most dangerous situation that an officer can get themselves into. Under the circumstances that I saw on TV, [in the Channel 2 investigation] I question the safety of it," said Ken Vance, director of Georgia's Peace Officer Standards and Training Council.

As head of the state agency which certifies police officers (POST), Vance wrote a letter to Georgia's Secretary of State to express his concern citing "significant danger to the security officer" and "possible civil liberty violations" of the drivers.

"I want them to take a very serious look at it, and I think they will. I think it's a dangerous practice," said Vance.

In May, Channel 2's investigation exposed the questionable traffic stops after an undercover producer carefully rolled through a miniature stop sign in the St. Marlo neighborhood.

An officer activated a siren, and turned on the security vehicle's flashing lights to initiate a traffic stop. She wore an official-looking uniform, but admitted she was not a police officer.

Lowe said he was showing real estate in the St. Ives neighborhood when the same thing happened to him, "And I'm thinking what is this guy doing stopping me?"

He said the St. Ives listings routinely say to go "not 1 mile over 25 miles per hour and to come to a complete stop at all stop signs."

"I was being very careful, I mean I was forewarned," said Lowe, "I think it's a terrible thing that they're doing."

Lowe refused to hand over his driver's license, or accept a ticket, and the officer told him he was banned from returning to the neighborhood.

A Channel 2 Action News producer paid her $100 ticket directly to the St. Marlo Homeowners Association, which has since posted a sign warning drivers that by entering the community they "agree to cooperate with enforcement actions."

In a statement, St. Marlo's attorney said the "traffic stops are voluntary" and the citation protocols "are reasonable and do not violate public policy."

"Just because they could, doesn't mean they should," said security expert Tripp Mitchell, who sits on the state board. Mitchell also wrote the training manual for security guards, which does not even mention traffic stops.

"It was never thought about, because I think if it was, we would have prepared for training for it," said Mitchell.

He said under Georgia law, security guards have the same authority as private citizens.

He refused to comment on specifics of Lowe's case, because the investigation will eventually go the board. Lowe hopes it gets taken seriously.

He said, "If they license these private security people, I think they need to have some rules."

If the state board finds the practice violates its rules, it could discipline the individual security companies. It could also issue a letter of concern, or a directive clarifying whether the practice is allowed. If Georgia law is found to be unclear, the board could also ask for an attorney general's opinion on the matter.

Critics said the traffic stops could be considered an unlawful detention of a driver, and in an extreme case, the security guards may be considered to be impersonating police officers.

"There is an old country saying that says if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it's a duck. Certainly looked like a duck to me," said Vance.

Vance and Mitchell pointed out that the security guards record a guests' license plate and personal information as they enter the gate, so it would be safer to skip the traffic stop and just mail the ticket to the driver.