Andre Boyer enters the gas station like a soldier—back straight, boots shined, AR-15 pointed towards the floor. He’s late to meet me, he says, because his employee caught a shoplifter and he needed to sort through red tape. He seems unaware of the flutter of anxiety spreading through the store as customers see his weapon, handcuffs, and bulletproof vest. But if anyone asked, which they don’t, he’d assure them that he’s there for their own good, even though it’s hard to be relaxed in the presence of a loaded gun.
“We’re not here to beat people up,” says Boyer, who heads S.I.T.E, a private protection agency that is patrolling gas stations and hotels in Philadelphia at the behest of store owners. “We’re here to let the public know that they can feel safe.”
Boyer’s armed guard service has boomed over the last year as Philadelphia police staffing issues led to longer response times. Neil Patel, the owner of this Karco gas station, says he hired Boyer in December after thieves stole an ATM from his gas station and the police didn’t respond for six hours.
Patel is not the only business owner shelling out money for private security as police departments across the U.S. lose staff. Already struggling to recruit new applicants in 2019, police departments saw a spike of retirements and a drop-off in new recruits after the 2020 murder of George Floyd and subsequent backlash against police, says Chuck Wexler, the executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum. In Philadelphia alone, police staffing levels dropped nearly 10% from the end of 2019 to the end of 2022, a recent government audit found. Nationally, the number of sworn officers dropped 7% between 2019 and 2021, according to FBI data.
While police departments were losing officers, crime was rising in many parts of America. Murders, assaults, and car thefts rose nationally in 2020, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, and an increase in homelessness has heightened anxieties about safety. These factors bolstered the private security industry, which had already been growing steadily since the terrorist attacks of September 11 but has boomed since 2020. There are roughly twice as many security guards employed in the U.S. than there were 20 years ago, according to the Security Industry Association, though the nation’s population has only grown 16% over the same time period. By 2021, there were about 2 police officers but 3.1 security guards for every 1,000 civilians.
“Private security is going to take over everything,” says Boyer, the Philadelphia armed guard. He adds that a father recently hired him to take his two children to the movies, armed with a shotgun, to make sure they were safe.