An etymological take on the "guard" versus "officer" debate
Editor's note: This post is a response from J.C. St. John to my initial post about the debate over the use of the word "guard" versus "officer" when discussing private security professionals.
Another example of language getting sloppy. Since the words can be traced back to origins that had more specific meaning at one point, deciding to diverge from that meaning without good reason seems to be just plain, bad English.
If the words were used more true to their past, the word "officer" would be reserved for someone who had powers representative of a parent authority (not just a parent entity but one of authority). A police officer is empowered by the Sovereign with an arrest authority and immunity from certain related liability for arrests and reasonable/authorized use of force. Probation officers represent the Sovereign. Corrections officers represent the Sovereign. There are a number of other public officers. All represent the Sovereign and generally have some degree of protection from liability for acts under the color of authority.
In a related sense, a corporate officer is empowered by a corporation—itself empowered by the Sovereign (though not as a power representative of the Sovereign itself obviously)—with powers relating to the corporation and some degree of protection from personal liability for acts done on behalf of the corporation.
So, with any security personnel, the question as to whether or not they are an "officer" is dependent on the power they have and from whence it came. Security personnel who are empowered by some sort of state or federal scheme and authorized to arrest under some authority of the state (outside of a common law citizen's arrest) could be accurately called "security officers." Really, though, they should also be granted some level of immunity for official acts. (Notice how "official" has the same root.)
Operating in the Commonwealth of Virginia, I see this nomenclature sloppily applied on a regular basis. Security personnel are called "security officers" by the state regulatory agency. Unarmed security "officers" are not granted any extraordinary arrest authority (but they are trained and registered under the state schema). Unarmed "officers" are trained to "deter, detect, and report." Armed security officers are trained to be more engaging and they supposedly have "arrest authority"—though it's one that is very limited (largely related to retail loss prevention) and without any immunity from liability. So, for registered armed security officers in Virginia, the title is just barely appropriate.
Guards (and guardians) have a protective duty that doesn't assume any sort of engagement that isn't directly related to protective actions—and their authority isn't necessarily derived from a higher authority. One can hire private guards to protect assets, but that doesn't mean that those guards have any authority (outside of the usual citizen's authority) to the conduct of their protective actions. Here too, though, the root and historical use of the word isn't precisely connected to more modern usage. Traditionally, guardians not only had the power to protect something/someone but also a legal DUTY to do so. (See also "fiduciary" and compare to "agency.") I suspect that a lot of modern day "guards" aren't also liable when they fail to protect.
So, to summarize, officers assert an authority granted to them by some greater power (usually a sovereign power—directly or indirectly) and guards protect things or people not neccessarily with a grant of power from the Sovereign or a greater power. If you are a private citizen with no recognition or empowerement from the Sovereign and you're doing protection work for a private entity then chances are you're a guard. If you have been empowered by the Soverign to assert some level of authority (like arrest authority) or you work as an agent of the Sovereign, then calling you an "officer" isn't inaccurate.