It reads like a dysfunctional “Where are they now?” episode. Larry Lawson, the former owner of the rogue security company Detection Services Inc., which was accused of brutalizing Hispanic immigrants before abruptly closing its doors, now works for Metro as a probation officer. Hired quietly 18 months ago, Lawson, 49, supervises nonviolent offenders who are on probation.
In 1999, the Nashville Scene reported that Lawson’s private security firm was terrorizing Hispanic immigrants at a South Nashville apartment complexes. The company towed Hispanic residents’ cars illegally, subjected them to improper searches and physically brutalized them. The scandal led to a massive reorganization of the Metro Police Department’s internal affairs division, which neglected to investigate the firm promptly, in no small part because 40 of its own officers worked for the company, including the man who then ran internal affairs. Meanwhile, when the Scene began investigating widespread allegations against Lawson and Detection Services, he promptly disbanded the company and disappeared from sight. No one heard a word from him. But now, he’s landed as a Metro employeeworking, no less, in the criminal justice arena.
No criminal charges were ever filed against Lawson. Many of the Hispanic immigrants who were victimized were in the country illegally and feared deportation if they went public with their allegations. But there was no shortage of evidence at the time, many of it from his former employees, that Lawson and his company did some very bad things. Tellingly, even some of Lawson’s own family disavowed him.
In 1999, Scene investigative reporter Willy Stern interviewed 17 former Detection Services employees and three dozen Hispanic residents, and the emerging picture provided a horrifying glimpse into a security firm that acted, in the words of one source, as a “private gestapo.” One Saturday night in January 1999, Lawson told some security guards that he was bored. “Let’s go down to taco city and fuck with the Mexicans,” he reportedly said. Then, they headed to the Ivy Wood apartment complex in South Nashville, which the company was in charge of patrolling. Lawson stopped one Hispanic driver at random and yanked him out of his car while the other guards snatched the passenger. As Lawson shoved the two men against the car, guards searched it for drugs and weapons, looking for cash to steal. The two men tried to resist, but the guards beat them. When one Hispanic yelled at Lawson, he whipped out a can of mace from his gun belt and sprayed it into the Hispanic’s face. The victim dropped to the ground, writhing in pain.
The story detailed other accounts of Lawson and his guards engaging in an unrelenting pattern of abuse and terror.
Ronald Crowe, one former Detection Services employee, told the Scene that Lawson seemed to enjoy tormenting the Hispanic residents he was charged with protecting. Sometimes, when he would arrive at Ivy Wood for a night of abuse, he’d act like a cheerleader. “Larry would get out of his car and say, 'Get their motherfucking asses.’ ”
Noka Blanco, who owned a company near the Ivy Wood apartment complex that supplies Hispanic laborers to construction firms, told the Scene in 1999 that she started hearing stories of Lawson’s abuse from her Hispanic employees. “The harassment of the Hispanics was so bad that I was afraid they were going to kill him,” she said. “I was afraid one day they’d find Larry Lawson’s body in a Dumpster.”
But now Larry Lawson is working as a surveillance officer for Community Corrections, a state-funded Metro probation program for nonviolent offenders. For $23,000 a year, Lawson conducts visits to selected offenders at home to make sure they’re not violating terms of probation. His supervisors defend the hire by saying he’s never been convicted of anything.
“I have to trust my people and have to believe that he doesn’t have any convictions on his record or he couldn’t be doing what he’s doing,” says Larry Stephenson, the state trial court administrator.
Steven Rhodes, Lawson’s direct supervisor, says that Lawson is doing a “great job.” He says that his predecessor hired Lawson and conducted a background check. As far as the Hispanic abuse case, Rhodes says that Lawson mentioned it and said it wasn’t true. Lawson himself declined comment to the Scene, saying, “You can talk to my attorney.” A call to his attorney was not returned.
Interestingly, while Lawson is now on the public payroll, he showed little respect for government when he worked in the private sector. His private security company, with contracts all over Nashville, didn’t pay a penny of local business taxes while it was still operating.
Long before Lawson stepped foot onto the Ivy Wood property, he exhibited a dark, dangerous side. In 1978, authorities charged Lawson with kidnapping and assault with intent to commit murder for breaking into a private home and abducting one of his ex-wives at gunpoint. Charges were later dropped after Lawson claimed that he had a “mental disease,” according to court papers. He was briefly committed to a psychiatric center in Nashville. Later that same year, he was fired from a state job after an “irregularity involving the remittance of state funds.”
In the late 1980s, Lawson worked as the safety director for R.E. West, a Nashville trucking company. Bob West, who was running the company in 1999, told the Scene at the time that Lawson “tried to act like the police, jumping across the medians on the interstates, and that caused real problems for us. His behavior was consistently that of a police officer who acted in bad faith.”
Lawson’s pattern of abuse apparently extends to his own family. During his father’s funeral, Lawson became agitated and threw one of his sisters against an outdoor wall of the funeral home, according to his brother Dennis and other witnesses. Dennis told the Scene that none of his four siblings is on speaking terms with him. “I’ve disowned Larry,” he said in 1999, “and want nothing more to do with him.”
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