CLAYTON — A private security firm hired on a $28.5 million contract to increase safety on the Metro transit system has been the subject of an ongoing USA Today investigation alleging a history of employees committing acts of violence and managers looking the other way.
The stories, published in October and December in partnership with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, reported that managers for London-based security firm G4S have taken shortcuts in vetting and hiring officers and that the company deviated from accepted screening, hiring and training practices, hired or retained employees despite significant red flags, and had armed employees with histories of mental illness. And the newspapers reported G4S had lost more than 600 weapons since 2009.
According to the reports, the firm’s American subsidiaries hired or retained at least 300 employees with questionable records, including criminal convictions, allegations of violence and prior law enforcement careers that ended in disgrace. Some went on to rape, assault or shoot people — including while on duty.
A Bi-State security official said he asked the firm for a response and came away satisfied when the company provided material rebutting the reports, including a letter it wrote the newspaper’s lawyers demanding a retraction and a letter to clients saying the stories were false and the company was “seeking legal action.” USA Today did not retract the stories, and there has been no legal action.
G4S also provided Bi-State with a news release from a security industry association that said while the articles reported on serious incidents, there was “simply no real evidence that they are the direct result of a systematic failure within G4S.” No records were available to determine whether Bi-State procurement officials had asked any questions about the stories.
USA Today published a six-paragraph response from G4S. The company said it enforces strict policies to prevent hiring mistakes, including training for managers and a screening process that goes above and beyond what many clients and states require.
A firm spokeswoman, Sabrina Rios, told the Post-Dispatch in an emailed statement that the articles “contain factual errors and present biased reporting that lacks complex contextual data about other security companies and law enforcement agencies, which like G4S also deal with the challenges of occasional inappropriate behavior by employees and loss of firearms.” She did not respond to the Post-Dispatch’s request to highlight specific errors in the USA Today stories.
Rios’ statement continued: “USA Today staff built their stories by selectively identifying former employees, out of hundreds of thousands who have worked for G4S over the course of 15 years, to misrepresent our labor force as untrustworthy. In reality G4S employees, nearly a quarter of whom are U.S. military veterans, are brave men and women who devote their lives to protecting the public by saving lives, preventing robberies and keeping individuals out of harm’s way. G4S is committed to hiring and retaining quality employees”
Matt Doig, USA Today’s Network Investigations Editor, who edited the stories, said in an email: “The facts in our stories have not been challenged by G4S or anybody else. There have been no corrections or retractions, and we stand behind our work 100%.”
With 560,000 employees in 90 countries, G4S is a massive player in global security. And Bi-State has placed the company in a high-profile role in St. Louis as it attempts to reverse declining ridership on Metro and restore credibility with area governments that fund it.
Bi-State Development in December selected G4S from six bidders for a three-year-contract not to exceed $16.7 million, with options for two more years not to exceed $11.8 million. The firm will replace Securitas and expand the role of contract security officers on the system.
In comments before the County Council on Jan. 21, Bi-State’s general manager of public safety, Stephen Berry, said G4S officers were being asked to be bolder about approaching riders causing nuisances. Instead of “static deployments” on platforms, officers will ride trains, check fares and help Metro’s in-house security team gather intelligence. And Metro will outfit them with radios allowing point-to-point contact with police. Most will not carry guns, an agency spokeswoman said.
G4S was initially slated to take over on Saturday, but the date was pushed back two months “to allow for a more reasonable time frame for the hiring, background checks and the training of G4S security guards,” according to a statement on Friday from Bi-State. Patti Beck, a Bi-State spokeswoman, said the delay was not out of any concern raised by the USA Today stories.
The USA Today stories came up Jan. 21 at a meeting between members of the St. Louis County Council and Bi-State executives. Councilman Tim Fitch, R-3rd District, asked whether Bi-State had concerns about what the newspaper had found.
Berry said Metro had asked G4S to respond and received 35 pages of material rebutting the newspaper that were “sufficient in depth and length” to satisfy Bi-State.
“A lot of it was stemming from issues that were over two to three years old,” Berry told Fitch. Other concerns raised in the USA Today stories were about the company’s handling of weapons and were not relevant, he said, because G4S officers working for Bi-State would not carry weapons. (Beck, the Bi-State spokeswoman, later clarified to a reporter that some G4S officers who are assigned to revenue collection would be armed.)
Council Chairwoman Lisa Clancy, D-5th District, said she had done some research into the company and was “alarmed by what was reported by USA Today. We deserve a more thorough explanation from Bi-State about why this company was chosen and why they are confident that they will provide the best services.”
The Post-Dispatch requested the material that G4S provided to Bi-State. The biggest piece included a 12-page letter dated Nov. 4 from a law firm representing G4S sent to USA Today demanding a retraction. The letter did not allege any specific factual errors but said the stories created a false impression by omitting facts. The letter noted the firm’s “track-record of excellence that is unrivaled in its industry.”
Fitch, a former county police chief who now works as a private security consultant, said he was not impressed with Bi-State’s due diligence.
“G4S responded to all their concerns, and they were happy with that,” Fitch said. “Of course, G4S is going to say it’s all bogus or untrue, but what did you do to independently verify that information was inaccurate?”
The letter said G4S acknowledged it had “a few employees over the past 15 years who committed misdeeds, one of which was beyond horrific.”
That was Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter who in 2016 used his own weapons to kill 49 people and injure 53 more. Mateen had been on a terror watch list and had been questioned multiple times by the FBI. Rios, the G4S spokeswoman, told USA Today that the FBI never informed G4S about its concerns with Mateen.
But the reporters found G4S officials had shuffled Mateen from post to post because of problems with co-workers and complaints from law enforcement about threatening behavior.
Rios told the Post-Dispatch the shooting was “committed by a person who was off-duty and was using his own weapon, who had repeatedly passed state and national background checks, and who the FBI had previously determined was not a threat.”
She said, “The actions of a few do not represent G4S as a whole.”
Daily updates on the latest news in the St. Louis business community.