After the INDY brought to light allegations of harassment and discrimination against Allied Universal Security Services, Durham wants answers from the company it just awarded a $2.7 million contract to provide security for five downtown parking garages. 

City staffers and elected officials say they were unaware of the lawsuits and criminal cases involving Allied when the council unanimously approved the contract in a work session on Thursday. The INDY first reported on the company’s troubling history of litigation on Thursday evening. On Friday, city officials sent the company a letter asking for specifics on how each case was resolved. 

Thomas Leathers, the city’s chief parking administrator, sent the letter, which says the complaints are of “great concern.”

“The City of Durham values the fair and equitable treatment of all people, including employees, contractors, residents, visitors, stakeholders, etc.,” Leathers wrote. “… The City takes all complaints of this nature very seriously and will investigate fully and fairly.”

Typically, the council doesn’t take action during work sessions. But the Allied deal carried a sense of urgency because the previous contract for parking-deck security expired December 31. In the past, the city had contracted with a parking management company, which, in turn, hired guards. But it’s now bringing management of the five garages in-house. 

During the lapse, city spokeswoman Beverly Thompson confirms, the decks were not staffed by security guards, though they were monitored more frequently by police.

In its search for a contractor, the city’s transportation department released a request for proposals, and six companies responded. Allied offered the cheapest price. Thompson says that, throughout the process, the transportation department worked with the company’s local division and was unaware of complaints brought in other cities.

“Now that we know, it’s all of our responsibility to look at it,” Mayor Steve Schewel told the INDY after Thursday’s vote. “It’s our expectation that our administration will bring us contracts we want to approve, and usually they do a good job. We’ll have to take a look at whether this one is an exception.”

This contract was approved the same week that the council created a Workers’ Rights Commission, which will advise the city on how to improve working conditions. Labor organizers hope the commission will help protect workers from low wages, discrimination, and abusive work environments—in other words, the kinds of abuses that Allied is accused of.

One incident involves a 2018 religious-discrimination case, since settled, in which a Muslim security guard was fired after seeking a religious exemption to the company’s grooming policies. Another suit was brought by Allied employees in a New York City airport, who said they were harassed and pressured by supervisors for sex. The alleged abuse—detailed in an episode of This American Life—included supervisors denying female guards bathroom breaks for ten or twelve hours at a time. Last month, two Allied employees pleaded guilty to beating a black man at a Denver transit station, which employees had tried to cover up. Separately, Allied employees described to The Boston Globe a culture of harassing homeless people after video surfaced in December 2016 of a guard beating a homeless man in Boston.

Steve Maritas, organizing director with the Law Enforcement Officers Security Unions, which represents police and security professionals in the Northeast, says Allied is notoriously bad for labor.

“They’ve been buying up companies left and right to suppress wages,” Maritas says. “If the city wasn’t paying guards fifteen dollars an hour, Allied never would. They’ll pay their guys whatever they can get away with.”

Allied is now the largest security provider in the nation, with more than two hundred thousand employees at forty-two thousand client sites, including Duke University. (An Allied supervisor at Duke did not respond to a request for comment.)

“While we are unable to comment on pending litigation, Allied Universal is committed to equal and fair employment and maintains strict policies against discrimination and harassment,” the company said in an email to the INDY.

The city wants to know how serious Allied is about these values. In its letter, the city asked the company for examples of actions aimed at mitigating harassment and discrimination. The city specifically took interest in supervisor training programs and changes in grooming policies. 

“I wasn’t aware of the allegations prior to the vote, and I’m glad they’ve been brought to our attention,” says city council member Jillian Johnson. “We’ve asked staff to look into the issue more. I’m most interested in how these issues were handled by the company once they came to light.” 

Schewel says the contract didn’t initially raise red flags. Typical council conversations about prospective contracts focus on workforce diversity and pay, and Allied met or exceeded the city’s goals on both fronts. 

“We have certain mechanisms to make it really easy to test for things we care about,” Schewel says. “The other stuff you have to hear about.”

Council member Charlie Reece suspects the company’s potential issues weren’t flagged because the contract and its related materials mostly refer to University Protection Services, a division of Universal Services of America, the company that AlliedBarton Security Services merged with in 2016 to form Allied Universal. 

Leathers has asked Allied to respond to the city’s questions no later than January 30, and Schewel asked staff to update the council at its February 4 meeting.

“Of course, we don’t want anything like what happened at those other sites to happen here,” Johnson says. “I think we need to determine whether these incidents are the result of a few bad actors or if there’s a culture within the company that encourages or enables harmful behavior by staff.” 

Contact staff writer Sarah Willets by email at, by phone at 919-286-1972, or on Twitter @sarah_willets.