Security guards

What are my duties as a private security guard and what am I allowed to do?

In today’s litigious world, people are increasingly more aware of their rights. If you’re employed as a security guard, you can easily find yourself in a tricky situation when it comes to shoplifting. It pays to make sure you know just what can and cannot legally do in certain situations.

Security guards and shoplifters

Shops use all manner of different techniques to prevent shoplifting, and most of them act only as a deterrent. Cameras, signs warning of prosecution and even security guards themselves are often employed because the sight of them alone will put people off trying to shoplift.

However, shoplifting is unlikely to disappear as long as there are still shops, so you’re likely to come across someone trying to steal from the store you’re working in at some point.

Power of arrest

Security guards do not actually have any more legal powers than any member of the general public; they have just been employed by a business to help protect it from theft. Security guards, like any member of the public, can make a citizen’s arrest under certain conditions.

Under s 24A of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, you can make an arrest for most indictable offences (including either way offences) if:

  • someone is in the act of committing an offence, or who you have reasonable grounds for suspecting them to be in the act of committing an offence; and
  • an offence has been committed and the person you want to arrest is guilty of that offence or who you have reasonable grounds for suspecting they are guilty of it.

The arrest will only be legal if:

  • it appears to the person making the arrest that it is not reasonably practicable for a constable to make the arrest instead; and
  • the arrestor has reasonable grounds for believing that the arrest is necessary to prevent the person:
    • causing physical injury to himself or others;
    • suffering physical injury;
    • causing loss of or damage to property;
    • absconding before a constable can assume responsibility for him.


    Basically, you’re entitled to detain a person you suspect of shoplifting, as long as you have reasonable grounds for this suspicion.

    You should make sure as far as possible that you have reasonable grounds to believe the person is shoplifting before you approach them. A checklist for this may include:

    • Have you seen the person select an item/items from the store that they have then concealed or hidden about their body?
    • Has the person then proceeded to leave the shop without having paid for the item(s)?
    • Have you kept watching them throughout this time?

    If you can answer yes to these questions you should be in a fairly good position to detain them. It’s best where possible to avoid using any sort of force if you can. You should explain to them who you are and what is happening, and contact the police right away, staying with them until the police arrive.


    To detain a suspected shoplifter, you are entitled to use a ‘reasonable’ amount of force. Under s 3 of the Criminal Law Act 1967 you may ‘use as much force as is reasonable in the circumstances in the prevention of crime, or in effecting or assisting in the lawful arrest of offenders or suspected offenders or of persons unlawfully at large’.

    Powers of search

    Security Officers do not have the power to commit a forced search of someone’s property if the person is there and does not give their consent.

    They do, however, have the right to search property if it is left unattended in suspicious circumstances. They can also search the property of an unconscious person if they are trying to identity the unconscious person, and it is best for that person’s welfare.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

When you submit your details, you'll be in safe hands. Our partners are National Accident Helpline (a brand of National Accident Law, a firm of personal injury solicitors regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority). They are the UK's leading personal injury service. Their friendly legal services advisers will call you to talk about your claim and give you free, no-obligation advice. National Accident Law may pay us a marketing fee for our services.

By submitting your personal data, you agree for your details to be sent to National Accident Law so they can contact you to discuss your claim.

If you win your case, your solicitor's success fee will be taken from the compensation you are awarded - up to a maximum of 25%. Your solicitor will discuss any fees before starting your case.