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Cities and suburban communities across America, desperate to slash budgets, have been looking into supplementing their police forces with private security guards.

New York City allocated $28 million last year to increase private security at public schools. The chief of police of Kansas City, Mo., said he would like to contract with private firms to perform 22 tasks done by his police.Last month, Sussex, N.J., replaced its entire police force with private security officers.

Hiring guards may save money (a guard's average salary is under $12,500 a year), but at what real price?

The New Jersey attorney general's office, sensing a possible disaster in the making, is suing Sussex to reinstate its police force. The state doesn't want to be held liable for any crimes or abuses committed by private officers.

This worry is justified: The security industry is practically devoid of regulatory safeguards.

Most people assume that security officers undergo rigorous training and screening. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Many guards are unqualified, dishonest, unreliable and even violent. Some are convicted murderers and rapists who are undoubtedly thrilled with the power of wearing badges and carrying guns. Many guards prey on those they are hired to protect.

Of the 80,000 security guards hired in New York State in 1991, 2,400 were found to be convicted criminals. CNN reported in April that California gives security guard permits to some 3,000 former criminals every year.

In many states, applicants can answer a classified advertisement in the morning and be at their security post by lunchtime.

Thirty-three states require no training for unarmed guards. Eighteen have no training requirements even for guards who carry guns. Eleven have no regulations at all, allowing even convicted felons to be hired.

All 50 states permit guards to work, unarmed, while the employer does a background check. This can take up to six months. Security firms are even prohibited from access to the FBI's and most states' criminal records.

Rep. Don Sundquist, Republican of Tennessee, is putting together a bill that would call for mandatory screening and training: a 10-year prior-employment check; a criminal history check; drug testing; a minimum of 20 hours of training for armed guards; a psychological evaluation; submission of fingerprints to the FBI before allowing employment, and training in crowd control, first aid and handling crisis situations.

My company long ago put such standards into effect. They have proved to be effective without being prohibitively expensive.

In 1980, there were 1 million private security officers in the United States. By the year 2000, according to the Justice Department, there will be nearly 2 million, outnumbering police officers 3 to 1.

We need federal legislation to prevent the foxes from getting the run of the henhouse.