Security guards at Walgreens across San Francisco were ordered to start stopping thieves just two weeks before one of them shot and killed a man suspected of stealing from the drugstore, The Standard has learned.
But after the high-profile killing of Banko Brown in Downtown San Francisco on April 27, the guards were told to stop confronting shoplifters at Walgreens stores around the Bay Area and to leave their guns at home.
That’s according to five security guards who spoke to The Standard on the condition of anonymity and numerous internal memos reviewed by a reporter. The guards all work for Kingdom Group Protective Services, a Manteca-based firm that provides security at Walgreens in San Francisco, Oakland and Richmond under a subcontract.
The guards say that the ever-changing rules are making their jobs more stressful—and everyone less safe—at a time when Walgreens and other retail stores are beset by rampant shoplifting.
Viral videos have shown shoplifters ransacking shelves in San Francisco stores, and security guards say the shifting directives they’ve received in the past month alone illustrate the nearly impossible situation they often find themselves in.
“The most stressful thing about it is that the orders keep changing over and over,” one guard said. “No one feels safe.”
A corporate communications officer for Walgreens, however, said the drugstore chain did not direct the security firm to change its rules around stopping shoplifters or to disarm its guards. Kingdom Group did not respond to a request for comment.
Brown, a 24-year-old transgender man and activist, was shot and killed by a security guard for the firm at the Walgreens near Market and Fourth streets in San Francisco. Police say the guard, Michael Earl-Wayne Anthony, tried to stop Brown for shoplifting and shot him after Brown spat on Anthony and raised an arm at the security guard. Brown, police say, was unarmed.
The shooting and later decision by District Attorney Brooke Jenkins not to charge Anthony with murder or even manslaughter sparked outrage among Brown’s friends and family, who urged Jenkins to walk back her decision. Jenkins said evidence showed Anthony believed he was in “mortal danger” and acted in self-defense.
The details about the changing rules for Walgreens security guards add a new dimension to the conversation around the killing.
Attorney John Burris, who is representing Brown’s family and considering filing a wrongful death lawsuit, said having armed security at Walgreens was irresponsible because it increases the chance of violence.
“You should not have armed security in the stores,” Burris said. “People can overreact and use deadly force when it is unwarranted.”
Before mid-April, the roughly 50 security guards working at about 20 Walgreens for Kingdom Group Protective Services acted only as deterrents, according to guards and company documents. The security firm is a subcontractor of Allied Universal Security Services, which contracts directly with Walgreens.
“We were there to de-escalate violent situations,” one guard said.
A January memo from Allied Universal Security Services said guards are supposed to deter criminal activity without forcibly removing people from stores. If a guard sees anyone break the law, the order’s vague language says guards should follow their “primary duty to protect and serve the community.”
The rules also said guards should not profile or follow customers.
Then on April 13, Kingdom Group Protective Services directed its staff to begin stopping shoplifters.
“Walgreens Post Order Update,” a company message to guards began. “KGPS is NOW stopping shoplifters.”
The order said guards can confront thieves trying to leave the store by asking them to hand over a receipt or by asking them to return the items.
“If they fight, we protect ourselves,” the message said.
Within two days, the firm temporarily rescinded the order. Multiple guards said that was because a colleague was hurt trying to stop a shoplifter.
“Effective immediately. DO NOT STOP ANYONE,” an April 15 alert said.
But the firm flip-flopped that same day. In a message reviewed by The Standard, CEO Jim Vierra said in a message to guards that they were allowed to stop shoplifters but only if they had witnessed the theft. He directed guards to ask thieves for a receipt or to return stolen items.
An hour after Brown was killed on April 27, the company reversed course yet again and told guards to no longer stop shoplifters.
“We will NOT stop anyone for theft, burglary, or shoplifting,” the company told its staffers at 7:34 p.m. that evening.
Guards said they received an order on Wednesday to stop bringing guns to work, six days after the April 27 killing.
That command made some guards fear for their safety. At least eight guards did not show up to work that day, multiple guards said.
“People were all pissed off,” one guard said. “Everyone is feeling this sudden anxiety and stress because you are asking us to go there defenseless. Everyone has already had incidents.”
Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org