Private Police: Mercenaries for the American Police State

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John W. Whitehead, Founder, the Rutherford Institute

John W. White­head, Founder, the Ruther­ford Insti­tute

Cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca is using police forces as their mer­ce­nar­ies.”—Ray Lewis, Retired Philadel­phia Police Cap­tain

It’s one thing to know and exer­cise your rights when a police offi­cer pulls you over, but what rights do you have when a pri­vate cop—entrust­ed with all of the pow­ers of a gov­ern­ment cop but not held to the same legal stan­dards—pulls you over and sub­jects you to a stop-and-frisk or, worse, caus­es you to “dis­ap­pear” into a Git­mo-esque deten­tion cen­ter not unlike the one employed by Chica­go police at Homan Square?

For that mat­ter, how do you even begin to know who you’re deal­ing with, giv­en that these pri­vate cops often wear police uni­forms, car­ry police-grade weapons, and per­form many of the same duties as pub­lic cops, includ­ing car­ry­ing out SWAT team raids, issu­ing tick­ets and fir­ing their weapons.

This is the grow­ing dilem­ma we now face as pri­vate police offi­cers out­num­ber pub­lic offi­cers (more than two to one), and the cor­po­rate elite trans­forms the face of polic­ing in Amer­i­ca into a pri­va­tized affair that oper­ates beyond the reach of the Fourth Amend­ment.

Mind you, it’s not as if we had many rights to speak of, any­how.

Owing to the gen­er­al com­pla­cen­cy of the courts and leg­is­la­tures, the Fourth Amend­ment has already been so watered down, bat­tered and bruised as to pro­vide lit­tle prac­ti­cal pro­tec­tion against police abus­es. Indeed, as I make clear in my book A Gov­ern­ment of Wolves: The Emerg­ing Amer­i­can Police State, we’re already oper­at­ing in a police state in which police have carte blanche author­i­ty to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and gen­er­al­ly man­han­dle any­one they see fit in almost any cir­cum­stance. Expand­ing on these police pow­ers, the U.S. Supreme Court recent­ly gave law enforce­ment offi­cials tac­it approval to col­lect DNA from any per­son, at any time.

How­ev­er, what­ev­er scant pro­tec­tion the weak­ened Fourth Amend­ment pro­vides us dis­si­pates in the face of pri­va­tized police, who are paid by cor­po­ra­tions work­ing in part­ner­ship with the gov­ern­ment. Talk about a dia­bol­i­cal end run around the Con­sti­tu­tion.

We’ve been so busy wor­ry­ing about mil­i­ta­rized police, police who shoot cit­i­zens first and ask ques­tions lat­er, police who shoot unarmed peo­ple, etc., that we failed to take notice of the cor­po­rate army that was being assem­bled under our very noses. Looks like we’ve been out­foxed, out­ma­neu­vered and we’re about to be out of luck.

Indeed, if mil­i­ta­rized police have become the government’s stand­ing army, pri­va­tized police are its pri­vate army—guns for hire, if you will. This phe­nom­e­non can be seen from Cal­i­for­nia to New York, and in almost every state in between. Accord­ing to the Bureau of Labor Sta­tis­tics, the pri­vate secu­ri­ty indus­try is under­go­ing a boom right now, with most of the growth com­ing about due to pri­vate police doing the jobs once held by pub­lic police. For instance, Foley, Min­neso­ta, pop­u­la­tion 2600, replaced its police force with pri­vate guards

Tech­ni­cal­ly, a pri­vate police force is one that is owned or con­trolled by a non-gov­ern­men­tal body such as a cor­po­ra­tion. Those who advo­cate for pri­va­tized ser­vices and lim­it­ed gov­ern­ment hail the shift towards pri­vate police as a step in the right direc­tion by get­ting the gov­ern­ment out of the busi­ness of polic­ing and allow mar­ket prin­ci­ples to dic­tate an officer’s suc­cess, i.e., if an offi­cer abus­es his author­i­ty, he can eas­i­ly be fired.

Read the fine print, how­ev­er, and you’ll find that these pri­vate police aka guns-for-hire a.k.a. pri­vate armies a.k.a. com­pa­ny police offi­cers a.k.a. secret police a.k.a. con­ser­va­tors of the police a.k.a. rent-a-cops don’t exact­ly remove the gov­ern­ment from the equa­tion. Instead, they mere­ly allow them to work behind the scenes, con­ve­nient­ly insu­lat­ed from any accu­sa­tions of wrong­do­ing or demands for trans­paren­cy. Indeed, most pri­vate police offi­cers are either work­ing for pri­vate secu­ri­ty firms that are con­tract­ed by the gov­ern­ment or are gov­ern­ment work­ers moon­light­ing on their time off.

What began as a job detail for wealthy com­mu­ni­ties and busi­ness­es look­ing to dis­cour­age bur­glar­ies has snow­balled into a lucra­tive enter­prise for pri­vate cor­po­ra­tions. Today these pri­vate police can be found wher­ev­er extra secu­ri­ty is “need­ed”: at hos­pi­tals, uni­ver­si­ties, banks, shop­ping malls, gat­ed com­mu­ni­ties, you name it.

As his­to­ri­an Heather Ann Thomp­son notes, “pri­vate secu­ri­ty firms have come sub­stan­tial­ly to sup­ple­ment, if not com­plete­ly to replace, the pub­licly-fund­ed pub­lic safe­ty pres­ence of trou­bled inner cities rang­ing from Oak­land, to New Orleans, to small towns in states such Min­neso­ta, to entire neighborhoods—sometimes extreme­ly rich, some­times des­per­ate­ly poor—in urban cen­ters such as Atlanta and Bal­ti­more.”

For exam­ple, in New Orleans, a 50-per­son pri­vate police squad fund­ed by a “vol­un­tary” hotel tax is being charged with enforc­ing traf­fic, zon­ing and oth­er non-emer­gency laws in the French Quar­ter.

In Seat­tle, off-duty Seat­tle Police offi­cers moon­light­ing as a pri­vate secu­ri­ty force patrol wealthy neigh­bor­hoods “approx­i­mate­ly six nights/days a week for five hours each shift. Offi­cers are in uni­form, car­ry police radios and their police firearms and dri­ve unmarked per­son­al vehi­cles.”

In Cal­i­for­nia, pri­vate mercenaries—many of them ex-U.S. Spe­cial Forces, Army Rangers and oth­er com­bat vet­er­ans—equipped with AR-15 rifles use unmarked heli­copters to police cannabis farms and cut down pri­vate gar­dens with­out a war­rant.

Yet while these pri­vate police firms enjoy the trap­pings of gov­ern­ment agencies—the weapon­ry, the arrest and shoot author­i­ty, even the abil­i­ty to tick­et and frisk— they’re often poor­ly trained, inad­e­quate­ly screened, poor­ly reg­u­lat­ed and heav­i­ly armed. Now if that sounds a lot like pub­lic police offi­cers, you wouldn’t be far wrong.

First off, the label of “pri­vate” is dubi­ous at best. Mind you, this is a far cry from a pri­va­ti­za­tion of police. These are guns for hire, answer­able to cor­po­ra­tions who are already in bed with the gov­ern­ment. They are exten­sions of the gov­ern­ment with­out even the pre­tense of pub­lic account­abil­i­ty. One secu­ri­ty con­sul­tant likened the rela­tion­ship between pub­lic and pri­vate police to pub­lic health­care: “It’s basi­cal­ly, the gov­ern­ment pro­vides a cer­tain base lev­el. If you want more than that, you pay for it your­self.”

The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago’s police depart­ment (UCPD) is a prime exam­ple of how pri­vate secu­ri­ty firms are being entrust­ed with the legal sta­tus of pri­vate police forces (which sets them beyond the reach of the rule of law) and the pow­ers of pub­lic ones. With a juris­dic­tion that cov­ers a six-square-mile area and is home to 65,000 indi­vid­u­als, the major­i­ty of whom are not stu­dents, UCPD is one of the largest pri­vate secu­ri­ty forces in Amer­i­ca.

The pri­vate police agency, mod­eled after the tac­tics of NYPD chief William Brat­ton, crim­i­nal­izes non­vi­o­lent activ­i­ties such as loi­ter­ing, van­dal­ism, smok­ing mar­i­jua­na, and ​danc­ing “reck​l​essly” and pun­ish­es minor infrac­tions severe­ly in order to “dis­cour­age” vio­lent crime. To this end, the UCPD can search, tick­et, arrest, and detain any­one they choose with­out being required to dis­close to the pub­lic its rea­sons for doing so. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, the UCPD has been accused of using racial pro­fil­ing to tar­get indi­vid­u­als for stop-and-frisks.

Sec­ond, these pri­vate con­trac­tors are oper­at­ing beyond the reach of the law. For exam­ple, although pri­vate police in Ohio are “autho­rized by the state to car­ry hand­guns, use dead­ly force and detain, search and arrest peo­ple,” they are per­mit­ted to keep their arrest and inci­dent reports under wraps. More­over, the pub­lic is not per­mit­ted to “check the offi­cers’ back­ground or con­duct records, includ­ing their use-of-force and dis­ci­pline his­to­ries.” As attor­ney Fred Gittes remarked, “There is no account­abil­i­ty. They have the great­est pow­er that soci­ety can invest in peo­ple — the pow­er to use dead­ly force and make arrests. Yet, the pub­lic and pub­lic enti­ties have no prac­ti­cal access to infor­ma­tion about their behav­ior, elud­ing the abil­i­ty to hold any­one account­able.”

So what hap­pens when the gov­ern­ment hires out its dirty deeds to con­trac­tors who aren’t quite so dis­crim­i­nat­ing about abid­ing by con­sti­tu­tion­al safe­guards, espe­cial­ly as they relate to search­es and heavy-hand­ed tac­tics? If you think police abus­es are wor­ri­some, secu­ri­ty expert Bruce Schneier warns that “abus­es of pow­er, bru­tal­i­ty, and ille­gal behav­ior are much more com­mon among pri­vate secu­ri­ty guards than real police.”

As Schneier points out, “Many of the laws that pro­tect us from police abuse do not apply to the pri­vate sec­tor. Con­sti­tu­tion­al safe­guards that reg­u­late police con­duct, inter­ro­ga­tion and evi­dence col­lec­tion do not apply to pri­vate indi­vid­u­als. Infor­ma­tion that is ille­gal for the gov­ern­ment to col­lect about you can be col­lect­ed by com­mer­cial data bro­kers, then pur­chased by the police. We’ve all seen police­men ‘read­ing peo­ple their rights’ on tele­vi­sion cop shows. If you’re detained by a pri­vate secu­ri­ty guard, you don’t have near­ly as many rights.”

Third, more often than not, the same indi­vid­u­als are serv­ing in both capac­i­ties, first on the gov­ern­ment pay­roll, then moon­light­ing for the cor­po­ra­tions. Not sur­pris­ing­ly, giv­en the demand for pri­vate police, you’ll find that police in most cities work pri­vate­ly while they are off-duty. Some pri­vate offi­cers start­ed off as pub­lic offi­cers, then made the switch once they saw how lucra­tive the field could be.

This gives rise to anoth­er inter­est­ing phe­nom­e­non, a schism, if you will, between what is per­mis­si­ble in the pri­vate sec­tor ver­sus and what is allowed in the pub­lic sec­tor, and how it affects those who trav­el between both worlds. We saw this played out in St. Louis, Mis­souri, when an off-duty police offi­cer, work­ing a sec­ondary shift for a pri­vate secu­ri­ty firm, shot and killed a teenag­er.

Fourth, what few real­ize is that these pri­vate police agen­cies are actu­al­ly giv­en their police pow­ers by state courts and leg­is­la­tures, which do not require them to act in accor­dance with the Constitution’s stric­tures or be account­able to “we the peo­ple.” As legal ana­lyst Tim­o­thy Geign­er observes, “They’re hid­ing from pub­lic scruti­ny behind the veil of incor­po­ra­tion, which may rank right up there among the most cyn­i­cal things a gov­ern­ment orga­ni­za­tion has ever done. It’s a move one might find in the cor­po­rate repub­lic of some dystopi­an nov­el. I say that because it’s tru­ly not as though the police depart­ments in ques­tion are attempt­ing to claim some kind of exemp­tion with­in pub­lic records law. They’re just putting up a stone wall.”

It’s not as if we have much in the way of local, pub­licly account­able police forces now; they all answer to the mil­i­ta­rized agen­cies that pro­vide their equip­ment and train­ing. These pri­vate cops sim­ply swell the government’s ranks and serve as the pri­vate arm of the law.

In fact, the Depart­ment of Jus­tice has been one of the most vocal advo­cates for the ben­e­fits that pri­vate security—which has twice the bud­get and man­pow­er as their gov­ern­ment counterparts—can pro­vide in part­ner­ship with pub­lic police. These so-called “ben­e­fits” are out­lined in the DOJ’s guide­book enti­tled “Oper­a­tion Part­ner­ship: Prac­tices and Trends in Law Enforce­ment and Pri­vate Secu­ri­ty Col­lab­o­ra­tions,” which focus­es on how both sec­tors can share cut­ting-edge tech­nol­o­gy, infor­ma­tion, and per­son­nel resources. Sounds cozy, doesn’t it?

As his­to­ry shows, we’re not forg­ing a new path with these pri­vate police agen­cies, either. In fact, we’re sim­ply fol­low­ing a mod­el estab­lished long ago, not only by Hitler and Mus­soli­ni, who relied on pri­vate guards to do their bid­ding, but also by the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rock­e­feller, who relied on their own pri­vate police force, the Pinker­tons, who had broad author­i­ty to “harass or hurt any­one their employ­ers deemed a threat—be they a work­er try­ing to get a fair wage or a poor per­son beg­ging near the doorstep of a man­sion.”

Nev­er­the­less as his­to­ri­an Heather Ann Thomp­son points out, “despite count­less his­tor­i­cal accounts of why pri­vate polic­ing of pub­lic spaces is a bad idea in a democ­ra­cy, ordi­nary Amer­i­cans have raised lit­tle ruckus today when, once again, only those Amer­i­cans with mon­ey are assured access to secu­ri­ty and pro­tec­tion.” Thomp­son con­tin­ues:

Worse, aston­ish­ing faith has been expressed in the much-tout­ed propo­si­tion that pri­vate police forces, in fact, act in the best inter­ests of the pub­lic. Where is the con­cern, if not the out­rage, that there is vir­tu­al­ly no reg­u­la­tion when it comes to pri­vate polic­ing in America’s inner cities? Not only can indi­vid­u­als with lit­tle if any train­ing police pub­lic spaces, but in var­i­ous locales they are even autho­rized to make arrests and wield firearms. What is more, unlike pub­lic police, pri­vate secu­ri­ty offi­cers are not required by law to read a sus­pect his or her Miran­da Rights and, more incred­i­bly, they are allowed to use force, in some cir­cum­stances even dead­ly force, if they deem it nec­es­sary to do so.

What we’re find­ing our­selves faced with is a gov­ern­ment of mer­ce­nar­ies, bought and paid for with our tax dol­lars, all the while claim­ing to be beyond the reach of the Constitution’s dic­tates.

When all is said and done, pri­va­ti­za­tion in the Amer­i­can police state amounts to lit­tle more than the cor­po­rate elite pro­vid­ing cov­er for gov­ern­ment wrong-doing.

Either way, the Amer­i­can cit­i­zen los­es.