Q: The concern I have is with the security company at the Allentown Fairgrounds, Lehigh Law Enforcement Officers Association. When you read that title, what comes to mind? Police officers, right? This a group of security officers, not police. Aren't they illegally presenting themselves as police officers? They dress in police-style uniforms (similar to those worn by Bethlehem police). They run red-and-blue lights on their vehicles. I looked up the emergency-lights laws and this company is allowed to use only amber, not red, not blue, not red-and-blue lights. These security officers should follow all rules and regulations.
— Joseph Holler, Allentown
A: The Allentown Fairgrounds police, as I've heard them described, are simply part of a private security company, similar to those employed by large corporate providers such as Pinkerton, which these days offers what it calls protective services, as well as investigations, corporate risk management and crisis management, employment screening and other services. It's big business.
By contrast, Lehigh Law Enforcement is a regional company providing security officers and services at the Fairgrounds under contract to property owner Lehigh County Agricultural Society. The officers were employees of the society before 1995, when the private company was formed and the contractual arrangement begun, according to company Vice President Bill Kotowski, who also serves as Fairgrounds security chief.
Kotowski said the company abides by all licensing standards, rules and regulations as specified by the state law governing security forces, the Private Detective Act of 1953. Portions were updated in the late 1980s, but this basic model has been on the road for 60 years without major changes, according to Kotowski. Legislative proposals to modernize the provisions, some backed by Lehigh Law Enforcement and others in the industry, have stalled in Harrisburg, he said.
The Fairgrounds contract is one of the company's biggest. But with about 200 employees depending on the season — roughly an equal split between full- and part-time workers — Lehigh Law Enforcement also provides security for concerts and entertainment venues, sports events, other fairs and public gatherings, schools, shopping malls, private parties, corporate property patrols — pretty much anything clients need, mostly in Lehigh and Schuylkill counties, Kotowski said. The company is growing; a Pottsville office was opened last year, he said.
All employees receive a state police criminal background check, Kotowski said. Though no training requirements are specified in the law unless officers will be carrying lethal weapons as part of their duties, he said the company provides its own training on matters including proper use of force, handcuffing procedures, and the use of Mace and Tasers. The Detective Act specifies that security people who carry firearms must have state police firearms training as specified in Act 235, and "a large majority" of Kotowski's force is Act 235 certified, whether or not the officer carries a gun on duty, he said.
Kotowski is aware of no prohibitions or rules regarding uniforms for private security officers, and though his officers often wear police-like uniforms, they specifically try to avoid public confusion between themselves and municipal or state police. They even avoid the potentially misleading description "Fairgrounds police," he said: "We do not use that term; that's an old-time saying" that seems to be disappearing, he said.
Clients specify the attire of Lehigh Law Enforcement officers, Kotowski said. Coats and ties, blazers and golf shirts are worn, depending on the job. The company's patrol cars (four for the Allentown area ) use only amber lights, Kotowski said, though a separate quick-response vehicle licensed under the state Health Department and operated as a stationary first-aid center at events does have red-light flashers. However, that vehicle cannot be used for hospital transports, he said.
Fairgrounds spokeswoman Bonnie Brosious said the company has done a good job over the years.
"They've been here a long time" and continue to be retained, she added.
"The Fairgrounds definitely needs a security force," she said.
The usefulness of the force was demonstrated at Mayfair, held for the first time this year in and on the grounds of Agricultural Hall. With the adjacent Allentown Farmers Market operating for part of the festival's run, the risk of fender-benders and pedestrian-vehicle conflicts was great, as festival patrons had to cross one of the property's main access roads to enter or exit the fenced festival area.
Effective traffic control was paramount, and by and large, they did a pretty good job, from what I could tell. However, the only officer I encountered was a bit rude, in my view. He greeted me as I lowered my window with, "Well first of all, sir, you have to slow down. You were going way too fast there" as I approached, which absolutely was not the case, by any stretch.
I might go a little fast sometimes, but never when approaching what for all I know could be an Allentown cop. When I made no reply, he went on explain my route to a parking spot. No real harm done, but I thought it an example of poor public relations.
There were, if anything, too many uniformed officers, sometimes adding to confusion and unnecessarily slowing the flow of traffic. But it was a first-time experience, and they get credit for avoiding the penny-pinching impulse to understaff the event. Their approach could be considered penny-foolish, pound-wise — a refreshing detour in these corporate tightwad times where service providers get squeezed so the limo owners can drive off with trunks full of bonus money.
Complaints about the status or behavior of Lehigh Law Enforcement or other private security officers can be made to police, Joseph, or even directly to county district attorneys' offices, which are empowered to enforce the Detective Act.
A final note on Lehigh Law Enforcement: One of the company's officers has run afoul of the law. Kotowski is a co-owner of the company with Brian Putt and James Spang. Spang served as Fairgrounds security chief for many years before being charged in August 2011 with indecent assault stemming from an off-duty incident. He eventually pleaded guilty to harassment and served 12 months' probation. Though Kotowski replaced him as security chief, Spang remains an owner of the company and continues to work security. Kotowski said the incident does not preclude Spang from continuing in those capacities.
Road Warrior appears Mondays and Fridays, and the Warrior blogs at mcall.com. Email questions about roadways, traffic and transportation, with your name and the municipality where you live, to email@example.com, or write to Road Warrior, Box 1260, Allentown, PA 18105-1260.