Private Domestic Security Companies

The conference I reviewed last week, Understanding the Privatization of National Security, had little to say on the domestic realm of private security, save Katrina-like responses. However, in the Washington Post today is an article by Amy Goldstein on privatization of municipal police services.

Just as the federal government outsources national security, cities are turning toward the private sector claiming to be short of financial capital to pay for the security. The reality is one of political choice and a failure to address endemic problems.

Questions: Is it right to privatize police services? What will the impact be on "traditional" police and investigative services?

The disdain serving military have for private military is nothing compared to that of law enforcement organizations (LEOs) and "mall cops". One thing the private military guys have going for them? Envy from the public military, partly due to pay differentials and partly due to flexibility, creates a different sort of relationship. In a war zone when the military is the law, it is easier for blue on blue conflicts to happen, like the Marines taking down Zapata (thinking they were Cochise) (and more here).

Of course all isn't roses for private military -- medical evac problems, insurance, support problems, honors, etc. -- but its better than for private police. Doubtful we'll have a Zapata-like incident in the US because of all the oversight agencies and groups, but without bright lines of jurisdiction, communication, and accountability, is it worth it to use private law enforcement officers that get to skip the police academy and time with their training officer?

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With the sleeve patch on his black shirt, the 9mm gun on his hip and the blue light on his patrol car, he looked like an ordinary police officer as he stopped the car on a Friday night last month. Watt works, though, for a business called Capitol Special Police. It is one of dozens of private security companies given police powers by the state of North Carolina -- and part of a pattern across the United States in which public safety is shifting into private hands.

Private firms with outright police powers have been proliferating in some places -- and trying to expand their terrain. The "company police agencies," as businesses such as Capitol Special Police are called here, are lobbying the state legislature to broaden their jurisdiction, currently limited to the private property of those who hire them, to adjacent streets. Elsewhere -- including wealthy gated communities in South Florida and the Tri-Rail commuter trains between Miami and West Palm Beach -- private security patrols without police authority carry weapons, sometimes dress like SWAT teams and make citizen's arrests.

Private security guards have outnumbered police officers since the 1980s, predating the heightened concern about security brought on by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. What is new is that police forces, including the Durham Police Department here in North Carolina's Research Triangle, are increasingly turning to private companies for help. Moreover, private-sector security is expanding into spheres -- complex criminal investigations and patrols of downtown districts and residential neighborhoods -- that used to be the province of law enforcement agencies alone.

The more than 1 million contract security officers, and an equal number of guards estimated to work directly for U.S. corporations, dwarf the nearly 700,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States. The enormous Wackenhut Corp. guards the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and screens visitors to the Statue of Liberty.

"You can see the public police becoming like the public health system," said Thomas M. Seamon, a former deputy police commissioner for Philadelphia who is president of Hallcrest Systems Inc., a leading security consultant. "It's basically, the government provides a certain base level. If you want more than that, you pay for it yourself."

The trend is triggering debate over whether the privatization of public safety is wise. Some police and many security officials say communities benefit from the extra eyes and ears. Yet civil libertarians, academics, tenants rights organizations and even a trade group that represents the nation's large security firms say some private security officers are not adequately trained or regulated. Ten states in the South and West do not regulate them at all.

Some warn, too, that the constitutional safeguards that cover police questioning and searches do not apply in the private sector. In Boston, tenants groups have complained that "special police," hired by property managers to keep low-income apartment complexes orderly, were overstepping their bounds, arresting young men who lived there for trespassing.

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"There is a limit to the amount of law enforcement you can expect taxpayers to support," said Ron Hodge, Durham's deputy police chief, who said some of his requests for additional officers have been turned down in recent years. Although, as in most cities, some Durham police work privately while they are off-duty, Hodge said the demand for off-duty police outstrips the supply.

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Some of the most sophisticated private security operations have expanded in part because of shrinking local and federal resources. The nation's largest bank, Bank of America, hired Chris Swecker as its corporate security executive last year when he retired as assistant director of the FBI. Even as identity theft and other fraud schemes have been booming, Swecker said, fewer federal investigators are devoted to solving such crimes, and many U.S. attorney's offices will not prosecute them unless their value reaches $100,000.