1st Armor security firm emphasizes local hiring, community relations
Private security company 1st Armor Protection Services makes community service central to its policing approach and, so far, that philosophy seems to be working. The minority-owned and operated company reports that in the past four years no shots have been fired on any of the 1,000 or so properties it protects, and there have been only two arrests.
Several members of the firm’s leadership team sat down with the Banner at 1st Armor’s Dorchester-based headquarters, near the Field’s Corner T stop.
1st Armor provides ongoing security patrolling and services to more than 1,000 properties through contracts with roughly a dozen property management companies. Matt Breveleri, operations director, likens the firm’s role to that of university campus police, only in their case, they work on any property that hires them. Under Boston Police Department policy, such private firms have the same legal power to make arrests and function much like police.
Larry Celester, director and co-founder, says that one advantage to hiring 1st Armor is that while a more minor issue such as a residential noise complaint may be lower priority on the BPD’s long list of situations to which it responds, that complaint still matters to residents. Because it focuses only on its properties, 1st Armor can respond quickly. While residential security forms the bulk of the firm’s work, the team also serves commercial clients such as Hen House, McDonalds and Victoria’s Diner. It also provides event security.
While there are other private security companies, its focus on community service sets 1st Armor apart, according to Breveleri and Celester. The business only hires employees who live or grew up in Boston’s neighborhoods, in order to recruit those who understand the communities.
“We police a little differently because we were those kids,” Celester said. “It’s not that these [so-called gang member] kids are criminals or violent — they’re bored. … I was that poor kid in that neighborhood, bored with nothing to do. When security came around, then I had something to do.”
This summer, to keep kids out of trouble, 1st Armor used its 14-seater van to take youth to the beach, while staff continued to hold barbecues and seek out other events for kids to attend, Celester said.
Bringing ice cream or refreshments to community parties, hosting cookouts and helping out locally — for instance, offering to fix an off-kilter air conditioning unit — are critical parts of company strategy, as is getting out of the cruiser and walking or biking the areas, both Celester and Breveleri said.
Security officers need to establish positive relations and not be known locally only as impersonal figures that are there to lay down the law, Breveleri said.
“You can’t just show up and put handcuffs on people and leave, and then come back and expect to be well received,” he said.
While the BPD is a leader in its practice of community relations, especially in districts B2 and B4, Celester said, it lacks the type of resources that 1st Armor can provide.
Celester is a former police detective with 17 years on the Youth Violence Strike Force or “gang unit,” which helped him build relationships with members of the BPD and with teens, upon which he now draws in this work. Due to a medical issue affecting his heart, Celester had to retire from the BPD, but was not ready to give up the work.
“I wasn’t done being a police officer, he said.
In 2013, he co-founded 1st Armor with Aisha Yasin, a former community organizer, liaison and nonprofit consultant with experience in youth empowerment and community-police relations. The team started with 20 employees and has grown since to about 100. The 1st Armor security team includes 55 special officers and 45 uniformed officers, deployed according to unarmed services such as night watch, and storefront security that calls for concierge-type and armed services. With a citywide scope and transportation fleet comprising ten cruisers, one van and 12 bikes, each night 1st Armor has several cars on patrol.
When it was founded, the firm hired its first employees from a security company that was going out of business, Celester said. They also helped those they couldn’t hire secure training and other jobs.
The company’s first contract was a St. Joseph’s housing property, where there were reports of youth violence. On the company’s first day, a youth shot another kid and 1st Armor officers worked with the BPD to make nine arrests and collect three guns, Celester recalled. After that incident, Celester held a cookout and, unarmed and wearing jeans, met with the teens to talk about issues they were experiencing. He said he knew some of them from his policing days and told them they didn’t need guns, that 1st Armor would protect them. Since then, there have been no problems, Celester said.
Both Breveleri and Celester described their officer force as linguistically and racially diverse, which are important assets for connecting with the communities they serve.
Another quality that sets them apart, they said, is the extent to which the company offers upward career mobility. Patrol officers can advance to management positions and the company trains interested parties to become special officers. A number of employees have gone on to join the BPD.