Pacific Valley Patrol security guards maintain a station at Travel Inn & Suites, a former motel turned into Project Homekey housing for the homeless Tuesday, April 5, 2022 in Fresno.

Private security guards who worked at Fresno’s publicly funded homeless shelters say they were unprepared to handle the threats of danger and other challenges they faced on the job.

The Bee spoke with six former private security guards over the past 10 months about their time working at the city’s converted motel shelters as employees of Pacific Valley Patrol, the main private security contractor hired to secure the shelters. Three agreed to speak on condition of anonymity because they were seeking employment in related work.

“It was horrible,” one former guard said. “Very scary,” said another. “There’s so much more to … working with the homeless that we’re not trained for,” said a third.

Guards said they had weapons pulled on them, dealt with belligerent loiterers and residents, and were ill-equipped to de-escalate tense situations involving shelter residents experiencing mental health crises.

Meanwhile, former guards, shelter residents, visitors, and homeless advocates allege that the company sometimes used unnecessary force while providing shelter security along Motel Drive.

Cristiano Lopes, chief executive officer of Pacific Valley Patrol, declined multiple requests from The Bee to comment on this story. He also declined to respond to numerous questions over email related to training, operations and specific incidents that guards recounted.

Miguel Arias, councilmember for District 3, the district where the new shelters are located, told The Bee in a March interview that it’s hard to convince a security company to accept the assignment on Motel Drive, adding that recruiting has been a challenge for service providers and security staff at the shelters.

“It’s not the easiest assignment for a security firm,” he said, “because you’re dealing with a population with probably the most diverse set of needs.”

David Sklansky, a criminal justice and private security expert at Stanford Law School, said that “private security often takes on work that people don’t want to think about.”

A Pacific Valley Patrol security vehicle, seen parked at a location on N. Polk Avenue just south of Shields Avenue Tuesday, April 5, 2022 in Fresno. Fresno Bee/Eric Paul Zamora

‘He tried to stab me’

Two guards recounted instances where they had knives pulled on them within the shelter.

Alec Gonzales, a26-year-old former security guard and manager with Pacific Valley Patrol, said one such incident took place around November 2021 at the former Sun Lodge Triage Center.

There was something shiny in a resident’s pocket, Gonzales said, which turned out to be a knife. The former guard told the resident that carrying a knifewas against the rules and asked the resident to hand itover.

The resident resisted, Gonzales said, and told him, “Well, if you want the knife, come and get it.”

Then, Gonzales said the resident started walking toward him. Fearing that he was about to get stabbed, Gonzales said he warned the man he would be shot with a stun gun if he continued to approach with his knife. But the resident didn’t back down.

“I shot him with a Taser,” Gonzales said. Then, he called law enforcement and emergency medical services to check on the man.

Gonzales said he felt underprepared for situations like these: “My security classes never taught me how to deal with that.”

Gonzales stopped working for the company in March of last year. As of fall 2022, he and a close friend are starting their own private security company.

While he didn’t respond to the exact incident, Matt Woodcheke, a spokesperson for the Bureau of Security and Investigative Services, the state agency that oversees the private security industry, said in an email statement to The Bee that guards should discuss training needs and safety concerns with their employer. He also said guards can select from a number of elective courses that are “relevant to the situations they will be facing” as part of their required training hours, including officer safety, handling difficult people, trespass, and arrests, search and seizure.

A separate incident took place on a Spring 2022 night, also at the Sun Lodge, when a Pacific Valley Patrol security guard, Warren Hicks, was on night watch.

A resident approached Hicks and said he was locked out of his room. But when Hicks opened the resident’s door using a master key, he found “a dude in there, and he had a knife.”

“He tried to stab me,” Hicks said.

Hicks said he managed to push the man’s arm in such a way that the knife only “barely” nicked his arm. He said “it was maybe half an inch away from my main vein in my wrist.”

The stress of the job proved too much to bear. Hicks quit the company in early 2022.

Jody Ketcheside, regional director of Turning Point of Central California, the nonprofit that managed the Sun Lodge, declined to comment on this story.

Again, Lopes of Pacific Valley Patrol declined to comment on this story.

A Pacific Valley Patrol security guard wears handcuffs as she maintains a station outside of a former motel turned into housing for the homeless Tuesday, April 5, 2022 in Fresno. Fresno Bee/Eric Paul Zamora

What training do California private security guards receive?

According to state law, people over age 18 can apply to become private security guards after passing a background check completing eight hours of mandatory training on powers to arrest and weapons of mass destruction and terrorism awareness. (Guard card training requirements have changed as Jan. 1, 2023, adding requirements on appropriate use of force and making training on weapons of mass destruction an elective course). At that point, they’re eligible for a “guard card,” a state registration card that certifies them as a security guard.

Following that, they must complete a minimum of 32 hours of training in security officer skills within six months. They have to apply separately for a permit to carry firearms and pepper spray.

But some former guards said the state classes weren’t enough to handle all the job entails.

“There’s no mental health training that we have to go through,” said Zacharia Martinez, a former Pacific Valley Patrol guard. “The only de-escalation class with this company that these (Pacific Valley Patrol) guards are having is when they first get their guard card — if they have a guard card.”

Another former security guard, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation, said she once had to intervene in a physical altercation between two female shelter residents.

The incident took place at one of the shelters along Parkway Drive. One resident who appeared to be experiencing a mental health crisis was being “exited” from the program and escorted off site, according to the former guard. The other resident proceeded to “taunt,” “belittle,” and “badger” the individual on her way out, the guard said.

“I had no training to get the one causing the disturbance to stop or to calm down the individual with (a) mental condition on the other side having a breakdown,” she said.

“We don’t have training for any of that,” she said. “It’s ‘go here, take this away, don’t allow this in,’ and that’s it.”

A security guard wears a Pacific Valley Patrol outside a former motel turned into housing for the homeless Tuesday, April 5, 2022 in Fresno. Fresno Bee/Eric Paul Zamora

In response questions about what kind of training required of private security guards, Katie Wilbur, executive director of RH Community Builders and Elevate Community Services ‒ two private entities that manage a number of city shelters ‒ said in an email statement to The Bee that when they provided training suggestions to the owner of Pacific Valley Patrol, they were informed that all guards are required to complete trauma informed and de-escalation training as part of the state licensing requirements.

Lopes wouldn’t comment on this story to answer questions about what kind of training guard received, but state BSIS records show that in July 2022 Pacific Valley Patrol was slammed with a civil penalty because its training certificates did not meet state requirements. The following month, the BSIS cited the company for failing to maintain records on required security training for two of its guards.

‘You can’t send some random person out there’

There’s little public oversight of the quality of services provided by public security guards at the city’s converted shelters, and little detailed requirements for how guards should conduct themselves.

Despite the public investment, the city of Fresno doesn’t have direct oversight into the hiring, selection, or training at Pacific Valley Patrol or other private security companies that are hired to provide security service, since the private security firm is hired by shelter operators.

Critics say this lack of direct oversight is problematic and has allowed for undue use of force.

As for Hicks, the guard that was nearly stabbed at Sun Lodge, he said he’s worried about the safety of the young, new guards who are being thrown into the challenging – and potentially dangerous – assignment.

“You can’t send some random person out there and put a vest on them and expect them to de-escalate a situation.”

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.