Under the gun

A deep dive into the city of Chico’s nearly $67,000 annual contract for armed security

Mike Stricker (center), co-owner of Armed Guard Private Protection, says his company provides invaluable services to the city of Chico and other clients. Stricker is flanked here by AGPP guards Gabriel Garber (left) and Derrick Azevedo.

Mike Stricker (center), co-owner of Armed Guard Private Protection, says his company provides invaluable services to the city of Chico and other clients. Stricker is flanked here by AGPP guards Gabriel Garber (left) and Derrick Azevedo.

Photo by Ken Smith

Only darkness appears at the beginning of body camera footage captured just before 11 p.m. on July 23, as security guard Edgar Sanchez is heard radioing in signs of a break-in to Armed Guard Private Protection’s dispatch center. With little light penetrating the shrub-covered fence surrounding the back patio of Chico’s Mid Valley Title and Escrow, where Sanchez was responding to a burglar alarm, the scene becomes visible only when the 23-year-old guard activates the flashlight mounted on his 9mm Glock semiautomatic pistol, already raised to firing position.

Seconds later, a man identified as 34-year-old Tyler Rushing appears and the two engage in a brief and chaotic melee. The camera catches glimpses of flailing body parts, banging and indistinct clamor. Rushing retreats as quickly as he appeared, groaning and cursing, and the guard frantically searches the patio for several seconds, the severity of the altercation unclear in the footage until Sanchez again reports over the radio.

“AG Sam 5, shots fired! Shots fired!” says the panicked-sounding Sanchez (using his radio call name), who sustained stab wounds to his left forearm from a broken flowerpot wielded by Rushing. “The subject’s been shot … I shot him!”

Less than an hour later, Rushing was dead inside the Main Street business, following a standoff with law enforcement that culminated in the already critically wounded man being shot twice more by Chico Police Department Sgt. Scott Ruppel. Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey declared the killing justified—saying the security guard and police officer acted in self-defense—but the incident has fueled ongoing concerns about police violence in Butte County. It also reignited apprehension over the role of private armed security, an increasing presence in Chico since Armed Guard Private Protection (AGPP) personnel—equipped with body armor, batons, loaded sidearms and hired by a group of downtown business owners—first walked the streets of downtown in November 2013.

Though Rushing’s death happened while Sanchez was performing guard services for a private entity, that tragic event and reports of AGPP employees performing municipal duties in public spaces prompted the CN&R to look deeper into the relationship between the armed contractor and the city of Chico. This led to the discovery of a $66,534 annual contract with the company that seemingly gives the city wide berth in its regular and potential uses of armed security. This escalation of services was implemented with no public discussion, and the cost and scope is beyond what several sources intimately involved in city politics—including at least one City Council member—were aware of.

The contract, obtained by the CN&R through the California Public Records Act, includes a summary—called a “project description”—that reads, “To provide armed private patrol services at Chico Downtown Parking Structure, City Plaza, the Stansbury House, the Chico Depot, and Park Facilities. Additional services may include armed private security services at the Chico Municipal Airport or other locations as deemed necessary or on an as needed basis.”

City officials interviewed for this article downplayed the significance of the services provided by AGPP, touting the arrangement as a fiscally conservative alternative to paying staff to perform menial tasks outside of the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. workday. They also claimed AGPP could only provide those services armed because of changes in the security industry.

City Councilman Randall Stone was unaware of the city’s contract with AGPP until he was provided details by the CN&R. He related the city hiring armed security to another effort to get more guns on the ground in light of perceived threats to public safety: the upcoming transition of city park rangers to armed officers overseen by the CPD. He characterized such efforts as being driven by “an appetite for blue gunmetal.”

The councilman, who’s held his seat since 2012, said in an October phone interview that he’s long been troubled by the proliferation of armed security in Chico, and described a personal experience at City Plaza earlier this year that strengthened that concern.

“I had my wife on one side of me and my child on the other and one of those guards literally walked between us,” Stone said. “He had the four magazines on his belt, a tactical holster strapped to his leg … the whole battle-dress uniform. And he walked between my son and I, surrounded by children, at the Thursday Night Market.”

Tyler Rushing’s parents, Scott and Paula, of Ventura, question many of the details of their son’s death on July 23, including whether the private security guard who shot him on the back patio of a Main Street business overstepped his bounds.

Photo by Ken Smith

Stone said the security guard’s equipment and appearance was unsettling in that environment, and the encounter prompted him to tell the organizers of downtown’s recently formed property-based improvement district (PBID) he couldn’t support that effort if it included hiring armed guards. Tom DiGiovanni, a business owner and member of the PBID’s steering committee, said that group’s research found very few PBIDs employ armed security, and doing so is against established best practices. DiGiovanni confimed the local PBID will not include armed guards.

AGPP’s presence at downtown events isn’t covered by the city’s contract, but until recently was paid for by the Downtown Chico Business Association. After the guards were first hired in 2013 by a group of business owners called the R-Town Downtown Coalition, the DCBA assumed responsibility for that contract in February 2014. Melanie Bassett, the DCBA’s executive director, said services initially included downtown foot patrols, but were dialed back to only cover calls for assistance from DCBA member businesses, and to provide security at downtown events. She said AGPP was paid through fundraising efforts like the DCBA’s Beautiful, Clean and Safe campaign.

Bassett said that, since the PBID rolled out its new Downtown Ambassador program on Nov. 17, the DCBA will no longer be using AGPP for on-call services, and she’s uncertain if the association will continue to employ them for event security. She said the DCBA has been happy with the company’s service, but is making the transition partly because of concerns about the safety of employing armed guards downtown brought up during the formation of the PBID.

Regarding the city’s contract, Stone said, “I knew [the city was] doing some work with [AGPP], but my understanding was it was extremely limited. I’m uncomfortable with the ongoing relationship to this extent, but I’m not surprised. [The City Council] didn’t grant this authority, but when you give that general authority, mission creep can occur.”

By mission creep, Stone was referring to contractors being hired to perform certain duties, with the cost and services increasing over time.

“For an organization this caustic to public perception, given the nature of armed guards, I would like to have been able to have a piece of this conversation beforehand.”

Attempts to interview CPD Chief Mike O’Brien and City Manager Mark Orme individually about details of the contract and the city’s relationship with AGPP resulted in Orme arranging an Oct. 11 interview with both men on the third floor of City Hall. Also present were Public Works Department administrators Erik Gustafson and Linda Herman, as the current security contract is overseen by that department.

“We’ve had security for a long time, as long as I’ve been here at least, and I’ve [been working for the city for] 21 years,” said Herman, parks and natural resources manager. She explained the city historically maintained a contract to provide unarmed security at the Chico Municipal Airport and the Amtrak depot when trains arrive and depart in the early morning. She said guards have been used some years to lock and unlock park gates. Previous contracts also covered on-call provision of armed services when needed to assist the Transportation Security Administration at the airport, and to secure crime scenes and guard prisoners during hospitalization or transport for Chico police.

However, analysis of security contracts obtained through public records requests and accounts payable data available on the city’s website dating back to 2003 show that Councilman Stone’s description of “mission creep” is fitting. Security was provided by Elite Universal Security under contract from 2003-2009, and that company continued to provide varying degrees of service without an executed contract until the start of AGPP’s contract in February 2015. Though the cost of past services some years was close to that of the current amount (see chart), the AGPP agreement is for exclusively armed services. AGPP’s initial contract called for annual renewals, but was amended last year to extend through 2020.

Payment for the current contract comes from multiple funds, all of which fall under oversight of the Public Works Department. The average monthly payments, according to a February 2016 purchase order provided by the city, are as follows: $2,469 from Parks, $1,976 from Transportation, $629 from Municipal Buildings Maintenance (split between building/facilities management and Stansbury Home security funds) and $370 from parking revenue. Payments from city documents show the CPD has used on-call services sparingly, having last availed of AGPP’s services—to guard a prisoner—in February 2015.

The last commercial flight left the Chico Municipal Airport in December 2014, alleviating the need for the city to provide guard services there. While it seems the city could save money by dialing back on its security contract, city officials said the opposite is true.

The city of Chico has long used private security for various purposes. The majority of services were provided unarmed by Elite Universal Security until the city’s current contract with Armed Guard Private Protection was signed in February 2015. That contract calls for exclusively armed guard service at more city properties than earlier agreements. On-call armed services were previously reserved to assist the Transportation Security Administration at the Chico Airport and for limited duties for the Chico Police Department. Shown here are the total amounts the city paid for security service from 2004 to 2016, as reported in accounts payable data available on the city’s website.

Chart by Sandy Peters

“It’s a cost-saving measure for us, from a staffing perspective,” said Gustafson, operations and maintenance manager for public works. “Otherwise we’d have to have to staff 24/7. They’re closing park gates at 10 p.m., restrooms at 9 p.m. We’d have to provide that staffing otherwise.”

Orme said the contract was reviewed by several department managers, city staff and O’Brien, who all signed off. Asked why such a sizable—and controversial— contract wasn’t brought to the attention of the City Council and the public, Orme said that isn’t necessary for contracts included in the normal budgetary process. The AGPP contract is listed as a line item in the city’s budget, though it’s understandable how even the most avid watchdogs would have missed it.

“It’s just under ‘contractual services,’” Herman said.

Asked why the city switched to solely armed security, Orme said AGPP was the lowest bidder and that the company said it would be difficult to provide some armed and some unarmed services.

“We didn’t mandate that they carry weapons; that’s a part of their corporate culture,” Orme said. “I think that dynamic is very important, because if it was a concern for the public, that should be an industry-wide concern. … The industry’s going in that direction, what are we going to do? Tell them, ‘Sorry, the industry is wrong; we need to go out and find someone who can do it that costs more?’ That’s kind of ludicrous.”

AGPP’s website says the company provides armed and unarmed security, but when interviewed earlier this month alongside other staff, Adam Stricker, the company’s administrative director and co-owner, said it is an “all-armed company.” He noted a few exceptions, like loss-prevention jobs at department stores and providing security for Oroville Dam construction, a state contract that doesn’t allow armed service.

Stricker, an 11-year veteran of the Marysville and Ferndale police departments, was surprisingly candid, offering comment on the Rushing shooting and other topics.

He said AGPP provides services to “well over 241 properties” in Chico alone, as well as in other cities throughout the North State, and that the company contracts with Butte, Sutter, Glenn and Yuba counties to guard prisoners. He said he believes AGPP to be “the largest armed contractor north of Sacramento,” employing nearly 50 guards.

Stricker expressed regret over Rushing’s death, but defended Sanchez, saying he was merely responding to the burglar alarm as per the company’s contractual obligation when he was attacked.

Asked if AGPP could provide the bulk of the city of Chico’s services unarmed, the company’s assistant manager, David Forsythe, said, “Well, it would be a possibility obviously, but there’s extra risk involved …”

“The majority of folks out there carry machetes,” Stricker interrupted. “Have you noticed that? There’s a lot of machetes being carried, knives and machetes.”

Chico Police Chief Mike O’Brien says his department has used armed security for limited purposes in the past, but that it hasn’t officially used AGPP’s services since 2015.

Photo by Ken Smith

The men went back and forth listing myriad improvised weapons they say are regularly carried by people they interact with, like rocks, spears, railroad spikes and needles. They also said animals, like bears, mountain lions and unleashed dogs, are a safety concern.

“I’ll give you an example: Bidwell Park … you ever been up in Bidwell Park about 11 at night?” Stricker asked. “I encourage you to come along, and then ask yourself, ‘Do you want to be out here unarmed?’”

While city officials downplayed AGPP’s duties—especially those related to policing—Stricker repeatedly mentioned the company’s close working relationship with law enforcement.

The city contract charges AGPP guards with providing regular patrols of city properties and “sweeps” while locking facilities, which O’Brien agreed “does sound a little ominous.” He said these duties are mainly to alert park users that gates will be closed, but Gustafson added that AGPP’s tasks include contacting illegal campers and those in violation of sit-lie and other ordinances that critics say target homeless individuals.

“That’s actually a good public service,” O’Brien said. “You’re maybe sparing someone a citation or a phone call to the police if they’re violating some laws. I don’t think that’s a bad thing, if it’s done professionally, of course.”

Security guards do not have the ability to cite people, and have no more ability to arrest than the average citizen. O’Brien said he could recall only one arrest attributed to AGPP, but added “there are probably more.”

Stricker said AGPP guards regularly make citizen arrests, but said they try not to do so unless property owners demand it. He said he disagrees with the idea that AGPP guards are “the homeless police,” and said they distribute fliers listing local social services to people needing help.

Further fogging the extent of CPD-AGPP cooperation is an AGPP Facebook post from Sept. 2 that includes pictures of members of AGPP’s “Special Enforcement Team” doing crowd control in the south campus neighborhood following a Labor Day weekend shooting.

“This type of service requires experienced personnel who are trained in party dispersal,” the post reads. “This was a 300-350 person college party, just a half block from a shooting that Chico Police were investigating. We were able to successfully coordinate with the PD and flush the departing college crowd in the opposite direction for crime scene integrity. Happy Clients.”

O’Brien said the CPD sometimes collaborates with AGPP in situations like the one described, but that such service isn’t part of the contract or paid for out of city coffers: “If we’re responding to a large party and they happen to be there because they’re responding to their client, meaning the property owner, are we going to use them to help contain something, like if we have a crime scene or something? Certainly,” he said.

Regarding Rushing’s death, O’Brien previously stated (at the Sept. 28 press conference declaring that shooting justified) that Sanchez’s gun may have saved his life when he was attacked. He reiterated that sentiment during the meeting at City Hall: “[Sanchez] simply was going into an area where he’s responding to broken glass and the alarm; he was attacked by Mr. Rushing [while] simply trying to do his job. Had Mr. Rushing not attacked him with those two sharpened pieces of glass, none of this would’ve been an issue. That’s the bottom line in that particular case, and I want to make sure we’re very clear on that.”

Butte County District Attorney Mike Ramsey holds up a replica of the purse-shaped flower pot Rushing used as a weapon against security guard Edgar Sanchez.

Photo by Ken Smith

In numerous conversations with Rushing’s parents, Scott and Paula, since their son’s death, the couple raised questions about the conduct of security guard Sanchez and members of the CPD on that fateful night, as well as about the quality of the official investigation of the shooting. In a Nov. 4 email, Scott Rushing said a privately funded investigation is still in progress.

Among the family’s concerns are Sanchez’s relationship with the CPD. The guard’s LinkedIn profile says he’s currently involved with the CPD’s Volunteers in Police Service (VIPS), and has been since July 2016.

During the CN&R’s interview with AGPP personnel, Stricker said Sanchez’s application for a job in law enforcement has been hindered by the Rushing shooting, but didn’t specify which agency he was attempting to join. Rushing said he feels any relationship with the guard and the CPD should have been referenced in Ramsey’s investigation report. The report doesn’t name the security guard or AGPP; Ramsey said he chose not to include that information because it is a private company, and security guards are private citizens. The company was named in a CPD press release the day after the shooting, however, and Sanchez’ full name was provided to the CN&R by Stricker.

O’Brien confirmed via email that Sanchez is a member of VIPS, and Ramsey verified that Sanchez had an active application to become a prison guard for the state Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation during the shooting investigation.

The Rushings say they’ve consulted law enforcement experts who’ve said Sanchez overstepped his authority by entering the darkened patio after seeing evidence of a break-in. That conclusion is likely based on an interpretation of security guards’ duties, as outlined by the state of California’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services (BSIS), that state a guard’s primary responsibility is to observe and report.

Matt Carroll, vice president of Sacramento-based Paladin Private Security and a state-licensed security guard and firearms instructor, said ambiguity regarding guards’ responsibilities, as well as differences in training and problems with BSIS lack of oversight, are rife in the burgeoning security industry. He looked at the guard’s body cam footage and Ramsey’s report to give his opinion and said, “objectively,” he believes the guard acted in self-defense according to the law.

“On the other side of that coin, and everyone can Monday-morning quarterback any scenario, but are there things I would have liked to see done differently that may or may not have changed the ultimate outcome? Sure,” he said.

“From an industry standpoint, you would see a lot of private security companies review that footage and say that once evidence of intrusion was afoot, the guard should have backed out, waited for law enforcement to respond and let them proceed with the investigation.”

Carroll said some of Sanchez’ other actions that night are also fuel for debate. Specifically, he said it’s unclear if Sanchez identified himself verbally before entering the patio, and he questioned whether Sanchez had training to effectively wield a lethal and nonlethal weapon (his Taser) simultaneously— cowboy-style—as he is seen doing on film after the shot is fired. He also said he’s not a supporter of using gun-mounted flashlights.

Yet another contentious detail in the guard’s body camera footage is a voice heard over the AGPP radio immediately after Sanchez reports having shot Rushing—an exclamation that sounds like, “Baby, we just shot one!”

Stricker said he’s unsure who is speaking, again citing AGPP’s number of employees. Ramsey said he didn’t investigate the statement further because it’s not completely clear what is said, and he believes it was said in the heat of the moment.

In the booming security industry, 40 hours of training enables anyone, with minimal background checks, to become state-certified to carry a loaded weapon in public and carry out some services traditionally reserved for police but for a fraction of their pay (AGPP, for example, hires security guards for $10.50 to $14 hourly, based on experience). Nationwide, on an increasing basis, these guards are acting as first-responders to potentially dangerous, active crime scenes, as private security grows and public services shrink.

Stricker best summed up that situation: “I think its unfortunate that the public has to turn to a private entity to get the job done because of whatever reason,” he said, referencing widespread municipal money troubles. “Now does it benefit me? Sure. We’re a large armed contractor up here, and we have a lot of properties.”

He said his original vision for the company was much smaller and simpler, but it grew as clients came to AGPP for help. “Then, pretty soon you have a whole bunch of folks that now are depending on you because they can’t get what they want to get out of the police department and what the police department wants to give them.

“Something needs to be done, and a lot of folks are turning towards us. And I’m an advocate, as you can tell, for law enforcement, but I gotta be honest with you … in this day and age, I’ll take whoever wants to come to my aid, whether it’s a private company or law enforcement or just a good Samaritan, over nobody.”