Alex Garland

In the brand-new trailer for Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, a bumbling mall security guard named Paul Blart punches someone in the gut. As she keels over, Blart's jaw drops open. The protagonist realizes he's just assaulted, by mistake, an elderly woman.

Blart—whose character is one long joke mocking mall cops everywhere—immediately apologizes. He's a bumbling mess, but he tries hard to do right, so we root for him. (The original Paul Blart film grossed $180 million; the sequel comes out in April.) Now to the messier reality: What happens if an actual mall cop brutalizes an actual innocent person?

In the aggregate, we don't know. There are three times as many private security guards, nationally, than there are local police, according to a 2003 study. But no one seems to track use of force by private security guards. To the extent that they are regulated, it's largely through licensing programs that differ from state to state. Typically, private guards must pass a criminal background check.

Once they're on the job, what, exactly, are Washington State's private security guards licensed to do? State law specifically authorizes merchants or their security guards to detain suspected shoplifters within the vicinity of a store. Other than that, the standard spate of laws applies. Private citizens, mall cops included, can use force to protect themselves or others, stop trespassers, prevent theft or property damage, or arrest someone who is committing a felony. And they're supposed to offer first aid, if necessary, once they've detained someone.

There are almost 11,000 licensed security guards in Washington, and since 2007 not one has been disciplined by the state for excessive force or misconduct on the job, according to Department of Licensing spokesperson Christine Anthony. Those who do have their licenses revoked usually lose them because of a new criminal conviction or "unlicensed activity."

In Seattle, the most infamous recent mall cop activity began on August 9, outside of Westlake Center. Raymond Wilford was walking toward the mall when an unknown man—described in legal documents as "Shirtless White Man" or "SWM"—accosted him.

A mall security guard arrived on the scene. But instead of dealing with the Shirtless White Man, the mall security guard pepper-sprayed Wilford, who is black, in the face. The incident, which local photographer Alex Garland caught on camera, received national attention—yet another example, it appeared, of a young black man being singled out for harm.

A draft complaint against the guard and Valor Security, his then-and-possibly-current-employer, identifies the guard as Assistant Security Director Stuart Hinds.

"It turns out that Raymond was not only psychologically traumatized by this thing, but he's also been physically injured," says Michael Maxwell, Wilford's attorney. Wilford, Maxwell says, has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress syndrome. Once inside the mall's "private security room," the lawyer contends, Hinds refused to let Wilford fully wash the pepper spray out of his eyes until a Seattle police officer arrived and said to release him. And Hinds allegedly tore the cartilage in Wilford's wrist, an injury for which his lawyer says he still needs surgery.

Valor Security, the 11th largest private security firm in the country, has steadfastly refused to disclose whether the mall cop who sprayed Wilford is indeed named Stuart Hinds, or if he's been disciplined at all or fired. He was spotted inside the mall, still on the job, five days later.

After the incident, I made a habit of popping into Westlake Center to ask the security guards there, "Where's Stuart?" They usually didn't know or couldn't tell me, until one day, one of them said he had been transferred to Alderwood Mall, which is owned by General Growth Properties, the same mall proprietor as Westlake Center.

At Alderwood on November 19, I thought I saw him. A short, stocky mall cop, dressed in the same ornate uniform and wide-brimmed hat, was walking around the food court. But it wasn't him. Later, I ran into the mall security supervisor, an older man with round glasses who looked like a pudgy bulldog. He said Hinds had only been there for a short period of time, then refused to say anything more.

Hinds deactivated his Facebook page during the initial flurry of news coverage in August, according to a former coworker. But what appears to be his page has since been reactivated. On it, his occupation is listed as "Director of Public Safety" at Valor Security.

In one Facebook post on his page, a picture of a white security guard with his elbow on a young black man's neck, a user under the name Stuart Hinds commented, "I'm not going to 'arrest' you, I am just going to throw your ass on the ground, handcuff you, drag you through the mall to the Security Office with the help of my uniformed buddies... Screw arresting! Detaining is way more fun! :D"

But again, it's hard to know exactly where Hinds is or what he's up to; an attempt at contacting him through his purported Facebook page was unsuccessful. According to the state, Hinds's armed security guard license expired on November 13, but he can use it and renew it for up to one year.

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The day it expired, Wilford's attorney sent a letter to Valor Security offering them and Hinds the chance to avoid a lawsuit by settling for $450,000. Otherwise, the letter states, Wilford is prepared to file a suit in King County Superior Court seeking to hold the company liable for damages, and accusing the company of negligent hiring and training.

The city attorney's office says it is still investigating what happened that day in August. recommended