Please visit the new home of Majikthise at bigthink.com/blogs/focal-point.

« Mexico police chief accused of running narco death squad | Main | Obama and Iraq »

May 19, 2009

The rise of private policing in the U.S.

A disturbing item from ISN Security Watch about how private security forces are replacing real police officers on many critical beats throughout the country:

Fast forward nine years later and one finds a young industry built almost entirely on the backs of former military and police personnel who have provided everything from diplomatic, convoy, embassy, weapon storage and energy infrastructural security to gathering intelligence, conducting interrogations, patrolling borders on land, fighting pirates on sea and transporting goods and personnel by air. It would seem there is nothing these forces cannot do. [ISN]


According to the story, some cities are actually pushing to give private security forces the power of arrest.  What transparent union-busting. These cities don't want to pay pensions and benefits to real police officers, so they're falling back on disposable rent-a-cops. Ironically, most of these officers are retired police, so they're cashing in on their publicly-funded training and expertise while taking jobs away from new cops.

Another attractive feature of private contractors is lack of accountability. Private contractors don't have to get elected. Unlike police departments, security contractors are usually limited liability companies that can just fold if they get sued.

Private policy is not good value for public money. It might seem cheap in the short term, but the erosion of standards and the lack of accountability make it a false economy.

TrackBack

TrackBack URL for this entry:
http://www.typepad.com/services/trackback/6a00d8341c61e653ef01156fa025e9970c

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference The rise of private policing in the U.S.:

Comments

for your reasons why private policing is a bad idea see below.

I'm generally about as pro-labor as anyone, but at the same time, I wouldn't necessarily mind seeing the police unions knocked down about a dozen pegs. At the end of the day, they do far too much to protect abusive and incompetent cops who've got no business holding a badge. Being a police officer isn't just about taking home a paycheck and building a pension, it's about serving a public trust. And the latter has to be more important the former every single time.

Not that private policing is a good idea by any stretch. Although I'd be interested to see how it would affect support operations and things like that.

When companies started running company towns, the Supreme Court required them to permit the exercise of free speech rights, just the same as any other municipal corporation. Hopefully, the same will happen to contract employees soon. We've had private prisons for years in this country, btw. Just like company towns, I think that contracted military and police are downright unamerican, and I don't mean that in the dramatic rhetorical vein, but mainly in the sense that it is against the principles we claim to hold dear.

There's a line in one of the later verses of the Star-Spangled banner that showed our contempt for the Hessian mercenaries of the revolutionary war-- no refuge can save/the hireling and slave/from the terror of night/or the gloom of the grave. Something like that.

Another attractive feature of private contractors is lack of accountability. Private contractors don't have to get elected. Unlike police departments, security contractors are usually limited liability companies that can just fold if they get sued.

And what accountability do cops have? The police, with very few exceptions, can't be sued at all. Suits for the misbehavior of police officers are paid by the taxpayers, not by the cops. And it's extremely hard to secure criminal convictions, even in the cases of the most egregious police misconduct. I don't endorse the use of private contractors to replace police, but I think there's s good chance that such contractors would be far more accountable than police departments.

Police departments are accountable to governments. Police departments can be sued. If I recall correctly, the NYPD paid out over $100 million in lawsuit judgments last year--a good chunk of which were for excessive force. My point is that the NYPD isn't just going to fold and skip town, unlike many contractors. Ultimately, police chiefs are accountable to police commissioners are accountable to politicians, who are accountable to voters. Private forces are accountable to their immediate paymasters, which makes them ideal for farming out dirty work. Also, private contractors are exempt from a lot of the FOIA and other open records laws that apply to law enforcement agencies. I can request my FBI file, but if I have a Blackwater file, I'll never know.

Private security guards don't have to display their names or badge numbers.

Then again, cops are allowed to go to protests disguised as protesters.

Folding a police force and forcing it to skip town seems like power I'd like to have.

Lindsay: what you say is true in principle. In practice, the police chief will keep his job, the politicians pretend to care while not doing anything to prevent further abuse, and the taxpayers keep having to foot the bill.

It's imperfect, but it's better than nothing.

We've gone far enough down the road of privatization hell in this country.

Does FOIA cover municipal police? I believe it only applies to the federal government. And why wouldn't it apply to Blackwater? If the federal government hired them to perform federal services, aren't they acting as an agent of the state? -- a "government controlled corporation" for FOIA purposes? The DOJ seems to think so if I'm interpreting that correctly.

By the way, Portland does have some sketchy private pseudo-police, who seem to mostly spend their time harassing the homeless and giving directions, but privatization goes both ways here.

My point is that the NYPD isn't just going to fold and skip town, unlike many contractors.

They NYPD also isn't going to get fired, unlike many contractors. There are certainly accountability issues with contractors, and they are different from the accountability issues with police, but I don't think it's accurate to simply claim that police are accountable and private contractors are not.

You said that the NYPD paid out over $100 million in lawsuit judgments last year--but it wasn't the NYPD that paid it, was it? Did it come out of the police budget? And which police officials were held accountable? If a private contractor paid out more than $100 million in claims, I imagine shareholders might demand more accountability that the citizens of New York get.

No, FOIA doesn't cover municipal police departments. That's why I said FOIA and other freedom of information laws.

State police forces would be covered by that state's freedom of information law.

Some cities have open meeting and sunshine laws that apply to police departments. A lot of the records of public agencies at the city level are available for the asking, without even having to resort to a formal freedom of information request.

A lot of the records of public agencies at the city level are available for the asking, without even having to resort to a formal freedom of information request.

Have you seen the videos of the guy who goes to various police stations asking how to file a complaint against an officer? Not much sunshine. Imagine walking into your local police precinct and telling them you want to see your file!

"Police departments are accountable to governments"

If that's a problem, I don't see why the government couldn't continue to be liable in the event a contractor goes out of business with outstanding judgments.

Brien, do you mean that police departments are already liable under those circumstances, or that the law could be changed to make them liable?

Sorry, that was really unclear.

What I meant to say was that I don't see why the government couldn't be on the hook for any outstanding judgments against someone incurred in the course of carrying out a governmental contract should that firm fold.

Which isn't to say that I disagree with your bottom line or anything, that just doesn't strike me as the biggest problem.

This post has been linked for the HOT5 Daily 5/20/2009, at The Unreligious Right

"According to the story, some cities are actually pushing to give private security forces the power of arrest."

It's already happened here and there. Yale Security has arrest powers in New Haven. The city has recently decided that they want these powers scaled back, after Yale arrested union organizers outside Yale-New Haven Hospital. On the other hand, Connecticut has ruled that open records laws apply at least partially to Yale Security, given that they are acting as police off-campus. I suspect that other states might not be so inclined, though.

And yes, the regular police get away with plenty, and it's hard to hold them accountable. But privatization doesn't actually fix that, with Blackwater / Xe the modern-day poster child, and Pinkerton the sepia-toned version.

You're way off if you think that there is a loss of accountability with regards to the use of private security in place of police. It's actually much, much easier to sue private security corporations for false arrest and other abuses than police departments. Without union backing, it's also easier to terminate and charge private personnel who break laws.

If a city contracts private security to perform any duties--just as all cities actually contract their police and fire departments--they can still be held liable for the acts of those employees.

If you don't like the privatization trend, you should be cursing the fact that government employees were ever allowed to unionize. It led directly to this.

Out of curiosity: are there government privatization trends in other countries with strong public sector unions? I know in Israel there just isn't - they privatized the usury-charging phone company, but the police and military nobody even dreams of privatizing (the military is already unaccountable to anyone - why change what works?).

If you don't like the privatization trend, you should be cursing the fact that government employees were ever allowed to unionize. It led directly to this.

I don't follow you. How did the unionization of goverment employees lead directly to the use of private companies for various municipal functions, and specfically law enforcment?

P.S. The HTML tagging system seems to be failing intermintently here. I have italics tags on the text I'm quoting, but it doesn't effect the text I see in the preview.

Most courts find "deputized" individuals to be "state actors" for purports of 1983 (i.e., constitutional rights) cases, and thus they're treated about the same as police officers, with the same defenses and same basic indemnity by the state.

For reference, "If an individual is possessed of state authority and purports to act under that authority, his action is state action." Grifin v. Maryland, 378 U.S. 130, 135 (1964) (amusement park guard deputized as a sheriff). Private persons become state actors for ยง 1983 purposes if jointly engaged with state officials in depriving an individual's rights. See Lusby v. T.G. & Y. Stores, Inc., 749 F.2d 1423, 1429 (10th Cir. 1984). (Both cites taken from http://bit.ly/15rvJV )

Thus, the bigger issues are, as referenced above (1) lack of direct accountability and state control of management / operations (2) police union busting and (3) lack of access via FOIA and state Right-To-Know laws, though that latter one could end up mooted by a court if it finds the two too closely working together.

It's worth noting that in some cases, private policing has been the norm for many decades. Some railroads, most notably Union Pacific, have maintained their own special police force, investigating crimes against the railroad, with basic powers of arrest both on and off railroad property, since the 19th century.

The comments to this entry are closed.