SECURITY OFFICERSAs Philadelphia Struggles to Hire Cops, More Businesses Are Turning to Private Armed Guards

By Mensah M. Dean

Published 1 November 2023

In Philadelphia, armed guards are summoned to stand sentinel in places where they’ve rarely — if ever — been before. Concern about homicides is also contributing to the rise of private security. But there are questions about limited training and regulation.

At a recent West Philadelphia community fair for people seeking to have criminal charges expunged from their records, children defied gravity on bouncy houses and residents grooved to the beats of homegrown rappers. Steps away, four armed guards were on patrol to prevent new crimes from being committed. 

Across the city, as worshipers arrived at a northeast Philadelphia mosque — a converted single-family home with a congregation so large its members spill out the door and onto the paved lawn and alley — they sought protection not just from Allah, but also from three guards clad in black tactical gear, clutching rifles with Glock handguns on their hips.

Welcome to Philadelphia, where armed guards are summoned to stand sentinel in places where they’ve rarely — if ever — been before. At Jim’s West, a Philly cheesesteak landmark that shut down for four years and reopened in September under new ownership, customers waiting to place orders often chat with and take pictures of the armed guards hired to keep criminals away from the eatery in this hardscrabble slice of West Philly. 

Ronnah Howard, 23, and boyfriend, Rocky Dorsey, 24, emerged from Jim’s West with two cheesesteaks — one American-style, the other a Cooper cheesesteak. “They’re keeping us protected,” Howard said, standing next to security guard Kevon Darden, owner of Presidential Protection Services, who had an AR-15-style gun slung across his chest. “It boosts security and safety, so I don’t have no problem with it,” Dorsey said. “It’s pretty cool.”

Certified by the Pennsylvania State Police, the guards’ proliferation, some believe, is a direct result of the city’s record gun-violence epidemic and the police department’s inability to hire and deploy enough officers. Between 2019 and 2022, the number of newly certified private guards and those renewing their licenses rose by 9.5 percent in Philadelphia, from 569 to 623, according to the State Police. Statewide, that number increased by 6.7 percent, from 3,212 to 3,428.

Pennsylvania isn’t alone. Nationally, private security officers outnumber public police 1.3 million to 800,000, said Rick McCann, founder of Private Officer International, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based association that advocates for and tracks the private policing industry. That’s an increase of 33 percent over 10 years; 36 percent of them are armed, he said.