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Marketplace
Behind The Blue Line

Accountability at question in private policing

Sally Herships Jun 5, 2015
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It was a typical day. Until Peter Dixon, in his late forties, married with two kids, went jogging after work and passed the Acorn housing projects — part of his regular route.

It was December 2011, and Dixon, who works cleaning BART trains, says two unmarked cars cornered him.

“They surrounded me so quickly, I didn’t have nothing to do but stop,” he says.

Four men got out of the cars. Dixon says he thought he was about to be confronted by undercover police. They weren’t in uniform and didn’t have badges. Dixon says they accused him of having drugs.

“I’m a citizen,” he says he told them. “And you got me mistaken with someone else.”

Though they didn’t disclose the name of the company they were working for, the four men were private security guards with Personal Protective Services, a company hired to patrol the Acorn Projects. There was an altercation and Dixon says he knew he’d crossed into territory that was “real bad.”

“The most thing I was trying to do now, is trying to get the people around me to look and watch.”

Dixon was handcuffed, and in the process his wrist was broken. The police were called. Eventually Dixon says the private guards admitted a mistake had been made.

“I was like, ‘Yeah, you did mess up. But I’m not leaving till you get the real police to come,’ ” he said.  

Dixon ended up suing the Oakland Police and the Personal Protective Services. But it wasn’t like walking into a public police department to file a complaint. His lawyer, Michael Haddad with Haddad & Sherwin, a civil rights law firm in Oakland, says they had to hire an investigator just to find out the name of the company. Neither Personal Protective Services nor the company’s law firm responded to a request for comment for this story. The case was settled, and Dixon was awarded $135,000.  

Robert Kane, the head of the Criminology and Justice Studies program at Drexel University, says the issue of public versus private police is a growing problem.

“The private police sector dwarfs the public police sector,” he says. 

Sometime in the last century the private security industry began to grow – fast. Now for every two police officers there’s an estimated three private officers. And, they’re often in places you used to see public cops: courthouses, college campuses, even housing projects like the one Dixon jogged past. Kane notes there’s a simple reason — money.

“Frankly, it’s just the economics of it,” he says. “The government entities treat the private police organizations generally as private contractors. So as a result of that, it’s really a lot cheaper.”

Most private guards don’t receive anywhere near the training regular police do, and the applicant pools for the two jobs can be very different, Kane says.

A government worker, like a police officer, is likely to receive retirement and health benefits, and often, a pension. But the earnings of private contractors are a lot slimmer. The quality of employee tends to be less for security officers than for police officers,” Kane says. If you want to be a police officer, there are background investigations and medical and psychological exams.

“If you look at the applicant pools for police departments, across the nation, frequently you’ll see 1 in 100 applicants actually gets the job,” he says. “Many people who apply for those police jobs do not get them.”

Kane says a lot of those who don’t make it as a public cop end up working private security. But because they get paid so much less, the turnover rate for the industry is high.

David Sklansky, a professor of criminal law and procedure at Stanford University, says there’s another issue. When you try to privatize a responsibility normally shouldered by the government, it can complicate things.

“The police work for everyone,” he says. “They don’t work for shop owners or wealthy home owners more than they work for anyone else.”

But when an apartment complex hires a private security firm, the formula can change.

“They may be very accountable to the owners of the apartment building or their residents in a gated community, but they’re not as accountable to the people that they accost and ask for identification,” he says.

People like Charles Dixon. Sklansky says this is the crux of the issue. Public agencies are responsible to the public. Private companies are responsible to the people who pay them.

“The mission of a private security agency, like the mission of any private business, is to provide a service for the people who are paying for it in the hope of earning a profit.”

It’s within the auspices of private companies that private police have the least regulation of all, says Stephen Rushin, a professor of criminal law at Alabama University School of Law who studies how states regulate the industry. 

“Those officers are the ones that most likely to execute an arrest, most likely to execute a search, most likely to interrogate the employees of a company,” he says. “They’re also the ones who are not actually regulated by most states’ law, as it currently stands.”

In 2011, Rushin published a study in the West Virginia Law Review identifying what he says is a problem: only six states regulate private police hired to work inside companies.

And even when private police have the best of training — for example, when an off-duty cops takes on extra work as private security — things can get worse quickly.
 
“Suddenly they’re no longer necessarily working for the public good,” says Rushin. “They’re working to protect the economic interests of their now private employer.”
 
Without regulation by a police department, notes Rushin, cops taking on extra gigs can be a breeding ground for corruption.

Kane says police officers doing double duty can raise questions that seem impossible to answer.

“If they’re a full-duty police officer but they’re off duty and working for a private security firm, and they have to intervene in a situation, the question is, ‘Whom are they working for?’ ”
 
Are they working for the public or the company that hired them? Do they follow company rules or police rules? While moonlighting cops are common, notes Kane, a lot of departments won’t let their officers take outside security work. 

But at the same time, says Rushin, private police can be helpful. It means more individuals working to enforce the law. He says they exist because there’s a need for them in communities with shortages of police, like in Oakland, California.

Mark Lerner, president and CEO of Epic Security, a company offering guards in New York and New Jersey, says demand for private security is growing steadily. But he points out that while private guards are not as well trained as the regular police, “private security guards are not the same occupation as public police.”

In New York and New Jersey, Lerner says, armed private officers need to complete about 70 hours of training in the first year. He knows there can be problems, he says, but the vast majority of incidents are handled properly. And he notes, there’s no shortage of problems with regular police too. But if someone does have a problem, it’s easier to file a lawsuit against a private security company than against the public police, Lerner says.

“So people have a recourse to the government agencies that regulate private security, and they certainly have recourse to the courts if they feel they’re entitled to damages,” he says.

But for Sklansky, the issue isn’t who’s entitled to damages, it’s that everyone is entitled to a public police force.

At last count, there were about 700,000 public police officers across the country. There are an estimated 1 million private cops.

“When we allow private policing to displace public policing, we are retreating from a broad public commitment to ensure that everybody, no matter how rich or poor, is protected against crime or violence,” says Sklansky.

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