Justice

The Surge in Private Police Raises Troubling Questions

March 12th 2015

By:
Alex Mierjeski

Recently on your Facebook feed, you may have seen a story claiming—impossibly—that when a small Texas town fired their entire police department, opting instead for a private security company, their crime rate dropped by almost two thirds, all while taxpayers saved $200,000. 

The story made the rounds on sites like Glenn Beck’s the Blaze, among others, but there were a few factual errors lost in the fray as writers and editors rushed to extol the benefits of privatization.

As Texas Monthly reported, “cheap, effective, and polite private cops” did not exactly take the place of local police in Sharpstown (which is a neighborhood, not a town) two years ago, nor did they indisputably lead to a 61 percent reduction in crime while saving taxpayers $200,000 a year. In reality, Houston police still patrol the area as they always have. The neighborhood association chose not to renew an expensive contract that gave them extra patrol officers, opting instead to hire cheaper extra help from a private security company called S.E.A.L. Solutions. As for the crime rates, an independent study landed on a 61 percent drop in crime, but according to an NBC affiliate, Sharpstown had the highest total crimes of any Houston neighborhood in 2013—the first year the S.E.A.L. was patrolling there. 

In fact, the factual mix-ups, while misleading, served to illuminate a debate over the growing presence of private security companies like S.E.A.L., and what authority they hold over citizens. Because when private contract officers drive decked-out law-enforcement vehicles, wear police uniforms, carry guns, and make arrests, who’s to tell the difference between a public and private cop—and more importantly, does that difference even matter?

Coincidentally, those and similar questions have flared after the Washington Post ran a story recently detailing the rise of private police forces across the country, focusing on Virginia, where ranks have doubled over the past decade. Numbers have swelled nationally, too, as some public police services have been cut and corporate campuses, business parks, neighborhoods, museums, and any other entity that stands to benefit from more security sees the benefits of hiring a full-time, localized police force. But observers warn of a concurrent rise in safety and civil liberties concerns, too.

The world of private security is a diverse one, ranging from innocuous mall cops to outfits more akin to SWAT teams—and it’s the proliferation of the latter camp that has observers worried. Across different states, these police-like designations are known by different monikers: “special conservators of the peace” in Virginia, “special police” in neighboring Washington, D.C., “patrol special police” in California. But as the Post piece notes, in many states, private officers are held to minimum training requirements, even though their duties often mirror normal police departments’ in scope and gravitas—like making arrests or firing a gun. In D.C., for example, officers require only 40 hours of training to be qualified, and in Maryland, officials “leave instruction to the discretion of employers but have no requirements.”

But there are other compounding factors in what many see as the rise of undertrained, rogue, gun-for-hire police forces, like the fact that they often answer to no one. Virginia’s Manassas Junction LLC, the company profiled in the Post piece, is owned and operated by a single individual, for example. As one former private officer said, “You got these guys running out there as security officers who couldn’t make it as police officers.”

Since the 1970s, the private security sector has been on the rise, growing especially in the wake of Sept. 11th, 2001. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were nearly 1.1 million private security guards in 2013, outpacing the 640,000 public police officers by a substantial margin. But a 2012 study found that despite this rise, private police nationwide are “chronically undertrained,” with almost a third facing little to no regulation. That means that misconduct like racial profiling, brutality, or any other questionable tactics could potentially go unchecked––a danger evidenced in allegations against the University of Chicago’s sprawling private police department in November, among other cases. Moreover, private companies are immune from Freedom of Information Act requests—a crucial “check” tool for citizens, journalists, and watchdog groups. Last summer, the ACLU of Massachusetts filed suit to obtain the records of multiple SWAT teams across the state that claimed exemption due to private standing.

Along with the ancillary security services they provide to neighborhoods and businesses, private police present an appealing cost-benefit formula for cities otherwise strapped for cash. Back in 2009, when the city of Oakland, Calif. faced an $80 million budget shortfall, the $200,000 annual cost of four private officers certainly looked better than the $250,000 annual cost for a single public police officer. And what’s more, the city would not be burdened with officers’ insurance costs. "We need a cost-effective answer to the crime we are facing," a City Councilor said at the time. 

Some measures have been taken to regulate private police more strictly, but they often seem to fall short. In Virginia, for example, lawmakers approved a bill last month that would almost double the training hours required for a court to grant a citizen the authority private police hold to 130––still a far cry from the 580 to 1,200 hours required by municipal officers in Virginia. While stricter regulations are a step forward, others point out that larger issues are still overshadowing. Indeed, in the proliferation of law enforcement bodies that are exempt from reading a person his or her Miranda Rights, and on whose word prosecutors rely in convicting arrests, seemingly existential problems persist.