Before getting the state stamp of approval to carry a weapon as a security guard, Omar Mateen — and every other armed guard in Florida — had to be officially certified as “mentally and emotionally stable.”
But no psychologist ever sat him down for a face-to face interview, reviewed his personal records or talked to a single person who knew or worked with him. He took a standard written personality test, which asks for true-false responses to questions such as “I would like to be a singer.” It was assessed by a psychologist contracted by the company looking to hire him.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
In Mateen’s case, that means his only evaluation in September 2007 did not take into account frequent misbehavior in school, his misdemeanor battery arrest as a teen or a troubling gun joke that led to his firing as a state prison guard trainee that same year. So the state soon granted him a license to carry a firearm as a guard for what was then known as the Wackenhut Corp., one of the country’s biggest suppliers of private security.
A more thorough psychological evaluation may have done nothing to stop the bloody shooting spree at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub earlier this month. Mateen wasn’t acting in a role as guard and the weapons he used are readily available to the general public.
But his case underscores the challenge of making sure armed security guards — generally a high turnover, low-paying profession — are screened properly before they are given guns for patrol. Florida’s security industry is now mulling possible recommendations to the state for increased screening of candidates.
“Vouching for a prospective security guard based just on a favorable test score is like saying someone who passed a grammar test will make a great journalist,” said South Florida forensic psychologist Michael Brannon. “You need to know a whole lot more to determine if someone is emotionally stable for the job. The test is a great tool, but should not be used in isolation.”
While some industry experts say full-blown psychological evaluations for each and every candidate might cost prohibitive, one possible suggestion is requiring mental-health tests every five years for armed guards, instead of just once at the time of hiring.
“Whether it’s a written test or not, you don’t know when that person is going to change mentally a year later, or five years later,” said K.C. Poulin, the chairman of the Florida Association of Security Companies. “That test can’t predict the future.”
The security industry is also hoping Florida lawmakers next year will pass measures allowing companies access to FBI background checks, to more effectively screen job candidates. That’s something being supported by G4S, the company that took over Wackenhut and employed Mateen and is a member of the National Association of Security Companies (NASCO).
“The tragic events in Orlando highlight an important issue that NASCO has promoted for many years,” the company said. “We support, at a minimum, a clearing house or intermediary approach to sharing FBI information that protects the public but does not compromise ongoing investigations.”
It has been more than two weeks since Mateen, 29, armed himself with a rifle and a pistol, killing 49 people and wounding 53 at the Pulse gay nightclub. The FBI says he appeared to be radicalized by Islamic extremism through the Internet.
His record as a private security guard with Jupiter-based G4S has come under scrutiny since the tragedy.
While stationed at a Port St. Lucie courthouse, Mateen made “inflammatory” remarks to co-workers suggesting he was linked to al-Qaida in 2013. After a 10-month investigation, the FBI found no evidence of ties to terrorism; Mateen admitted he made the comments but only because co-workers were teasing him about his Muslim faith.
G4S said that the FBI never informed it about the probe, although Mateen disclosed he was questioned by agents as the company explored his workplace harassment claims. The FBI also never told G4S about an unfruitful 2014 probe into whether Mateen had ties to a Vero Beach suicide bomber in Syria.
Mateen was not fired, but instead was moved to a check-in booth at a Palm Beach gated community. One former co-worker later told the Miami Herald that he had complained about Mateen’s violent rhetoric about gays and blacks, although the company said it had no record of any such complaints.
Across the country, regulating security guards varies from state to state. Even though the industry has received its share of criticism, particularly in the wake of the Orlando shooting, Florida’s vetting process for armed guards is considered more thorough than in most states.
The pool is deep — there are 135,671 active security guard licenses in Florida, and 19,538 also hold licenses that allow them to carry guns on the job. The industry says it supports improved screening.
“We’re pushing to raise the standards. You raise the standards, you’re going to raise the pay,” said Steve Amitay, NASCO’s executive director. “We would like to see requirements that would make for a more professionalized force.”
To become an armed Florida security guard, you need two state licenses.
The “D” license is for a general unarmed position — the uniformed security guard who checks you into your condo or patrols the strip mall in a golf cart. That requires 40 hours of training, and the license can be denied for a felony conviction or if an applicant has “demonstrated a lack of respect of the laws of this state or nation.”
The statewide firearms “G” license is supposed to be more intensive. In all, candidates must complete an additional 28 hours of firearms training, sponsored by the hiring company.
Current background checks for G licenses sometimes miss factors that might raise questions.
For instance, in 2012, Miami armed security guard Lukace Kendle shot two unarmed men outside a strip club, killing one, paralyzing the other. He is doing life in prison after being convicted of murder last year.
Kendle held a “G” license to carry a firearm as part of his job with Force Protection Security. But the state background check did not catch his alcohol and drug abuse, several arrests in Florida and Pennsylvania, as well his ejection from the U.S. Navy for “alcohol rehabilitation failure.”
After his arrest, he was twice found mentally incompetent to proceed to trial, and was diagnosed with personality disorder and symptoms of schizophrenia.
As for Mateen, his paperwork also checked out. “All of the information related to his application to receive those licenses was in order,” Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam told reporters soon after the massacre.
But that paperwork also revealed Florida’s less than rigorous mental health evaluation standards.
Under state law, an armed guard must be deemed “mentally and emotionally stable” by either a full psychological evaluation or a “validated written psychological test.”
G4S acknowledged that in September 2007, Mateen was only asked to fill out the “Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory,” or MMPI-2, as part of the “character certification.”
With more than 500 questions, the MMPI is a true-false test that is widely used in job screenings and accepted in court cases. Questions range from “My soul sometimes leaves my body” to “Once in a while I think of things too bad to talk about.”
But many psychologists say that the test alone is simply not enough, especially because candidates can easily fib on paper.
“You have to be concerned that a person is not giving straight forward answers — that a person is trying to look too good — if they are trying to get a certain position,” said Brannon, the South Florida psychologist.
In contrast, clinical psychologists who examine police recruits consider test scores, but also interview acquaintances, review personal and mental-health records and, most importantly, speak to the candidate one on one.
David Corey, an Oregon clinical psychologist who specializes in police evaluations, said that full evaluations are important not only for the state and security companies but “to ensure public safety is considered.”
“The stakes are raised when a weapon is involved, and there are the potential catastrophic consequences that may result by someone who is unsuited to make a lethal-force decision,” said Corey, who is a member and former president of the American Board of Police & Public Safety Psychology.
A probing psychologist might have certainly found some of those red flags. Records showed Mateen struggled with his grades throughout school and had numerous emotional and violent outbursts. Mateen was suspended a total of 48 days at two high schools he attended, including two stings for “fighting with injury.”
When he was high school, Mateen was also arrested for misdemeanor battery after a fight with a student. What punishment, if any, he received is unknown because the juvenile record was ultimately sealed and expunged. G4S said it was unaware of the sealed arrest record.
The Florida corrections department hired him as an officer trainee. He was stationed at the Martin Correctional Institution. But records showed he was fired in early 2007 after repeatedly falling asleep in class, skipping school, and laughingly wondering whether a classmate would tell if he brought a gun to class. The gun comment was made two days after a gunman killed 32 people during a rampage at Virginia Tech University.
“In light of recent tragic events at Virginia Tech officer Mateen's inquiry about bringing a weapon to class is at best extremely disturbing,” the prison warden at the time wrote in a memo.
To G4S, Mateen only disclosed that he was dismissed for skipping work because of a fever. Corrections only verified that he worked there.
To add to questions about Mateen, the “character certification” document sent to the state by the company listed a psychologist who had closed her South Miami practice more than a year earlier. After the Orlando shooting, the company acknowledged that it was a “clerical error” and that the test was actually administered by the firm that bought her business.
The company has said Mateen underwent an “extensive” and “rigorous” background check. G4S said it also analyzed everything from Mateen’s work references to his credit and driving record. In determining whether he would succeed on the job, the company deemed him “above average.”
“We are continuing to conduct a full and thorough investigation,” the company said Friday. “However, at this stage, we have found nothing in Omar Mateen’s work behavior that suggested he was capable of committing — or planned to commit — such an atrocity.”