Three security guards who were hired as part of Palo Alto's Track Watch program to prevent suicides on the Caltrain tracks apparently have criminal pasts, and at least two were arrested while working for Val Security, Inc., according to court records.
The three men, whose alleged crimes did not involve children, were entrusted with keeping an eye on teens and others who might trespass on the Caltrain right of way. The tracks were the scene of two suicide clusters in 2009 and 2010 and 2014 and 2015.
The November arrest of one of the guards, James Broughton, on residential burglary charges, brought to light the criminal backgrounds of others, as was first reported by NBC Bay Area on Feb. 18.
Broughton, 21, was arrested on Oct. 27, 2015, on charges of burglarizing three homes in Palo Alto, according to a police department press release. Police officers responded to a report of a burglary on the 1400 block of Emerson Street on Oct. 25 at about 1:30 p.m., after the victim returned home from a vacation and discovered her home had been ransacked and several items were missing. Broughton allegedly entered the home through an unlocked door, according to police.
Broughton, who had no fixed address, was also arrested for burglaries that took place on Oct. 26 on the 500 block of Miramonte Avenue and the 1600 block of Castilleja Avenue, just blocks from each other. All three locations are near the Caltrain right of way where he worked.
Broughton was arrested and charged with three felony counts of residential burglary and two felony counts of possession of stolen property, according to court records. Just one month later, on Dec. 17, he was charged with second-degree robbery, according to Santa Clara County Superior Court records. Those records show that he was also convicted of an additional robbery-related crime.
Broughton appeared in court on Feb. 18 on both counts, according to court records.
Another security guard, Brett Scott, has had multiple drug-related arrests, including one in October. He pleaded no contest to felony possession of methamphetamine for sale on Jan. 20, 2016, and an enhancement charge, and he is scheduled for sentencing on March 24, court records show. He also has a prior conviction for transportation of a controlled substance. He has told police that he was selling the drugs to finance his habit, according to a police report.
A third guard, Kenneth White, was arrested on a warrant for petty theft while near his security post and pleaded guilty, according to NBC Bay Area. A check of court records by the Palo Alto Weekly did not immediately show that charge on file, according to the court clerk's office.
White was charged in July 2013 with vehicle theft in connection with a stolen motorcycle after his fingerprints were allegedly found on the vehicle, according to a police report, but the charges were later dropped for insufficient evidence. He was also arrested for driving on a suspended license in 2006, according to court records.
Val Security, a Vallejo-based firm, is listed as having 20 employees, according to the online source InsideGovt and has 35 employees according to an online security officer website. The U.S. Department of Transportation Maritime Administration is listed as a client.
How could it happen?
Calls to Val Security requesting comment were not returned. How three employees with criminal backgrounds were able to work for a security firm remains an open question.
Kes Narbutas, CEO of San Francisco-based Cypress Private Security, which has replaced Val Security in monitoring the Palo Alto tracks, said there are many security checks a company can apply -- some are required by law -- so that criminals aren't hired.
State law requires security guards to hold a valid Security Guard Registration Card (called the Guard Card). The State of California does an extensive background investigation as part of its approval process, he said.
Narbutas said that state and federal security clearances are "pretty thorough." Asked how an employee might skirt these background checks, he said, "There are some smaller operations that are not as stringent with their checks or with complying with mandatory Guard Card requirements."
He was not specifically referring to Val Security, however.
City of Palo Alto spokeswoman Claudia Keith said the city had no knowledge of criminal backgrounds of any employees of Val Security, and when the city was made aware of the infractions, Palo Alto police made arrests and notified Val Security.
"All background checks are the responsibility of the vendor, not the city, as they are not city employees," Keith said.
She noted that the state will not issue a Guard Card to an individual for most felony offenses and some misdemeanor crimes, and in addition, security guards undergo fingerprint checks through the Federal Bureau of Investigation/Department of Justice Live Scan system.
City replaces Val Security
Track Watch started with parent and community volunteers taking shifts guarding the tracks during the teen suicide cluster in Palo Alto in 2009, Keith said. The City contracted with Val Security from January 2011 to November 2015 to take over from the volunteers. Over the course of the nearly five-year contract, the city paid approximately $746,000 to Val Security, she said.
But the city was apparently dissatisfied with the company's performance.
"We started looking for a new vendor to replace Val Security last spring as the city was not happy about their work performance, which included talking on the phone, lack of professional appearance/behavior, etc. The city was already in the process of retaining a new vendor when the criminal behavior issues surfaced, and we terminated the contract early to bring on Cypress, who had previous experience with Caltrain, San Francisco Muni and East Bay Municipal Utility District," Keith said in an email.
Cypress was awarded a $429,000 contract in December 2015 to supply security through June 30, 2016, at four locations, she said.
The contract also includes a $10,000 set-aside for additional services if needed, according to the contract supplied by the city.
The hourly compensation is almost double that charged by Val Security, Keith noted. Val Security was charging about $40,500 a month last April, according to a city staff report. Cypress Security's contract averages out to $61,000 per month.
Keith said that guards are normally on duty 22 hours per day but through March will be stationed 24 hours daily, since Caltrain is running test trains.
Cypress' contract also contains more specific reporting regulations on guard conduct, supervisory oversight and reporting requirements, she said. The city will evaluate the guards' performance independently and jointly with Cypress.
Personnel may not use cell phones except to report an emergency or to talk to a supervisor, according to the contract.
If there is an incident, a supervisor must evaluate the personnel, and any incident must have a written incident report. All personnel must have a four- to six-hour training session prior to assignment, with other possible training sessions while employed, in addition to training required by law for the Guard Card certification.
The guards must wear name tags and assist with bike and pedestrian crossings during high-traffic times so long as it doesn't interfere with track watching for suspicious activity, according to the contract.
Narbutas said that all security officers working for Cypress are required to maintain current Guard Cards.
"In addition to the state's background investigation, Cypress Security conducts its own thorough criminal history check and sex-offender registry check. When an applicant applies for a position of employment with CPS, they are required to complete an Investigative Consumer Release Form in conjunction with their application.
"This form authorizes CPS to obtain the Investigative Consumer Report (ICR) from our contracted ICR agency. The report includes orders for live criminal-record pulls; state, regional and national criminal database searches; Social Security verification; education verification; Department of Motor Vehicle records; credit history; and state and national sex offender records. The background check is conducted through ADP Screening and Selective Services. Depending on the position, certain officers are also required to undergo psychological testing as well," he said.
Cypress Security also requires all job candidates to complete a 10-panel drug screen prior to employment. Additional screening while the person is employed depends on job location, job duties, specific circumstances and local legislation, he said.