Michael Youlen stopped a driver in a Manassas apartment complex on a recent night and wrote the man a ticket for driving on a suspended license. With a badge on his chest and a gun on his hip, Youlen gave the driver a stern warning to stay off the road.
The stop was routine police work, except for one fact: Youlen is not a Manassas officer. The citation came courtesy of the private force he created that, until recently, he called the “Manassas Junction Police Department.”
He is its chief and sole officer.
He is a force of one.
And he is not alone. Like more and more Virginians, Youlen gained his police powers using a little-known provision of state law that allows private citizens to petition the courts for the authority to carry a gun, display a badge and make arrests. The number of “special conservators of the peace” — or SCOPs, as they are known — has doubled in Virginia over the past decade to roughly 750, according to state records.
The growth is mirrored nationally in the ranks of private police, who increasingly patrol corporate campuses, neighborhoods and museums as the demand for private security has increased and police services have been cut in some places.
The trend has raised concerns in Virginia and elsewhere, because these armed officers often receive a small fraction of the training and oversight of their municipal counterparts. Arrests of private police officers and incidents involving SCOPs overstepping their authority have also raised concerns.
The Virginia legislature approved a bill Friday increasing the training and regulation of SCOPs. The private officers would now be required to train for 130 hours, up from 40 hours — less than the state requires for nail technicians, auctioneers and security guards.
In neighboring D.C., a similar designation called “special police” requires 40 hours of training. Maryland officials leave instruction to the discretion of employers but have no requirements. Other states have similar systems.
“There are a number of groups we regulate far more stringently than SCOPs carrying a gun,” said Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, speaking prior to the passage of the bill.
Problems bring scrutiny
A handful of incidents involving SCOPs in Virginia and nationally have focused attention on the training and oversight of private police.
In 2009, a SCOP who owned a private security firm got into a heated argument with a woman over parking at a Newport News-area shopping center, according to court records.
Kevin Bukowski hemmed in the woman’s vehicle, and then he and a partner pointed their guns directly at the woman and a friend as they sat in their car with two children, court records show. Bukowski was convicted of abduction, and the state revoked his SCOP registration in 2012.
“I was unjustly punished, but there are a lot of problems with the system,” Bukowski said of SCOPs. “You got these guys running out there as security officers who couldn’t make it as police officers.”
In another incident in 2012, a SCOP on a motorcycle with flashing lights and various law enforcement-style stickers pulled over a Virginia State Police special agent driving on I-64 near the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, according to court records.
The SCOP asked the officer why he was going so fast. The officer replied, “Who are you?” and flashed his badge, according to court records. The SCOP then rode off.
The officer said the man on the motorcycle was likely a SCOP named Michael Tynan, who runs a security officer training academy in Virginia Beach.
Portsmouth police questioned Tynan after he was seen conducting another traffic stop in 2013, according to the court documents. He told officers his SCOP status allowed him to perform traffic stops. He also said he was a retired state trooper but later admitted he failed out of the academy.
The Virginia Attorney General’s Office moved to strip Tynan of his SCOP commission in Portsmouth in 2013, and Tynan agreed to surrender it.
In an interview, Tynan said he was unaware of the allegations and would have challenged them if he had known about them. “I categorically deny these things,” Tynan said.
The government’s motion to vacate Tynan’s SCOP commission in Portsmouth said he was “unfit for an appointment,” but state records show Tynan is still registered as a SCOP in Virginia Beach.