In response to a spate of teen suicides in Palo Alto that first began in 2009, city leaders created a program called “Track Watch,” hiring an outside company to provide security patrols along the rail corridor through the city. The four-year contract with Vallejo-based Val Security cost Palo Alto $746,000.
But what most residents didn’t know until now is that some of the guards hired to watch out for teens were convicted criminals accused of continuing to commit crimes while working as guards for the city; in at least one instance, police even arrested a guard suspected of burglarizing multiple multimillion dollar homes during his shift.
While California voters made it clear they believe in second chances for job seekers with criminal backgrounds by passing Ban the Box in 2014, the NBC Bay Area Investigative Unit uncovered the following details about several guards who allegedly continued their criminal activity while employed by the city of Palo Alto.
A review of police reports and criminal records revealed at least three guards were arrested while they were employed to watch the tracks:
- Val Security guard James Broughton was arrested in October 2015 in connection with multiple residential burglaries, accused of stealing jewelry and electronics. Criminal records show Broughton was recently released from San Quentin, where he served time for armed robbery with a handgun. Records show he is also under investigation by Palo Alto police for identity theft using stolen credit cards. When questioned about the latest string of burglaries, police records show Broughton denied the charges, telling investigators, “he does not do burglaries, but he does do robberies.”
- Guard Brett Scott faces drug possession charges in Palo Alto and appeared in court in November 2015. His criminal history includes other drug offenses dating back to 2013 but he was hired by Val Security in early 2015 to patrol the tracks. He told the Investigative Unit he wasn’t nervous about his latest brush with the law, “Do the crime, you pay for it,” he said in court.
- Kenneth White is another Val Security guard arrested in Palo Alto while employed as a track watcher. In November, Palo Alto police arrested White near his post on a bench warrant for petty theft from Fry’s in San Jose. He pleaded guilty to the charge. White’s past also includes grand theft charges in Mountain View, which were later dropped.
Val Security did not respond to our multiple calls and emails for comment.
Palo Alto city leaders declined to be interviewed on camera but said the contract with Val ended in December 2015.
“There have been multiple instances of Track Watch Guards both noticing and letting police know if they have seen a teen who may be in distress around the tracks.” city spokesperson Claudia Keith told NBC Bay Area. “Just seeing a Track Watch Guard could impact a teen’s immediate thoughts about harming themselves.”
Keith said the city “had no knowledge of the criminal backgrounds” and that the city does not conduct background screening on any of the guards hired to watch the tracks, instead relying on the contractor. “All background checks are the responsibility of the vendor, not the city, as they are not city employees,” Keith said.
“It’s really frightening,” Palo Alto resident Sherrie Holod said. She lives across the street from two homes allegedly burglarized by Broughton. She said learning about the guards’ sketchy criminal histories makes her feel victimized a second time.
“I have a brother that committed suicide. That's a tragedy that you don't want any family to go through, it’s horrible,” Holod said. “So knowing that the city is hiring people that aren't really going to be able to help these people or that are supposed be there watching the track but instead they’re stealing from the community around us, that's really hurtful.”
In December, Palo Alto replaced Val Security with Cypress Security. The new contract pays the Cypress guards twice the hourly wage and totals $429,000 for seven months.
But once again, the city is relying on the contractor to for all background checks and screening.
“It is simply a huge scar, a wound upon this community,” Marc Vincenti said. The community activist and retired Gunn High school English teacher helped launch Save the 2008. Vincenti said he lost six students to suicide in the span of two school years.
“To be a teacher, to go into the classroom the next day when you know one of those desks is going to be empty, that is a difficult job,” Vincenti said.
Cypress Security owner Kes Narbutas told NBC Bay Area, “All security officers working at Cypress Security are required to obtain and maintain a Guard Card prior to employment. Most felony offenses and some misdemeanor crimes prohibit the State of California from issuing Guard Cards to those individuals.”
Vincenti believes the city should thoroughly vet the guards it hires, especially given its history, because of the impact they have on the community.
“We need to have the best adults for these kids at the railroad tracks,” Vincenti said.
SUICIDE PREVENTION: If you know someone who needs help, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255).