Private Cops

Several people have pointed me to a disturbing article in the Washington Post — The Private Arm of the Law — about the proliferation of private security forces and their use by police departments.

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. […]

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. […]

“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. [emphasis added]

This is disturbing on a whole bunch of levels. Will we see the lobbying efforts of private police like we do with the private prison industry? We have a tough enough time with corruption in the regular police force — how will we control that with private cops?

But here’s the part that disturbs me the most. Imagine that the private cops get their wish and can patrol the adjoining streets. And assume the article is right in that private cops don’t have the same constitutional limitations as regular police…

I can envision a future scenario where the kind of abuses inherent in the structure of the multi-jursidictional drug task forces get brought to a whole new level….

Let’s say a merchant’s association (under heavy encouragement from the police) hires some private security guards. Since a whole lot of merchants (at least one on each main street) are involved, the security guards can patrol anywhere. Although ostensibly working for the merchant’s association, the security guard works with a police task force going through town rousting people on the streets. The security guard, unfettered by constitutional restrictions, searches anybody they encounter who is young, black, hispanic, or poor, including those driving through. If he finds drugs he turns the person over to the accompanying cops for the arrest.

So what rights do citizens have when it comes to private cops?

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