Privatizing the Long Arm of the Law

One of the most important obligations of government is to protect peaceful citizens from criminal fraud and violence. Public safety and the long-term planning necessary for the development of good jobs and vibrant markets is dependent upon the rule of law and the ability of citizens to trust that contracts will be honored, property will be secure, and violence will be restrained. The prosperity of American citizens is due in large measure to their respect for the rule of law and the police who enforce it.

Traditionally, government police officers have shouldered the burden of providing for public safety while taxpayers have directly absorbed the full costs for these benefits. Privatization of some police forces can both enhance safety and lower costs, as a number of examples show.

Private Security Past and Present

The most familiar form of police privatization is using private security officers in place of government employees. Local, state, and federal officials have used private security forces to their advantage.

Perhaps the most stunning example is President Abraham Lincoln's use of the private security team of Allan Pinkerton to provide him with protection. Pinkerton's team successfully frustrated at least one attempt on the President's life; unfortunately, the Pinkerton force was not working for Lincoln the night he was killed.

More recent examples include Miami Beach, Florida, where officials decided to heighten security in public buildings previously considered low-priority areas. The city hired private security officers to do the job and saved 30% of what it would have cost to hire and train additional city officers to cover the security expansion.

Must city police be employed directly by government? Two-thirds of American security professionals are already private-sector employees.

In Brooklyn, New York, a private security force successfully policed Starrett City, an apartment complex with 20,000 tenants located in a high-crime part of the city, for over 20 years. The private force was so effective that city police coverage of the complex was cut to two part-time officers.

San Francisco offers another example of successful police privatization. The city is divided into several distinct patrol areas, and licenses to patrol each area are sold to private security providers. The providers in turn sell their services to the individual residents of their particular patrol area. This arrangement allows residents to customize the level of police service they receive. The government provides a minimal level of police protection, and residents who believe this level is inadequate can fill the void through an account with the licensed private providers.

The "Specials," as the private police officers are called, look and act just like public police. They make arrests, conduct investigations, write tickets, and perform most other police functions within their patrol areas. But the Specials contend with two forms of accountability: They must abide by the regulatory authority of the Police Commission as well as meet the contractual obligations of their customer accounts.

Privatization of police services is not unknown in Michigan, either. One example is the Flint Housing Commission, which cancelled its security arrangement with the city police department in 1995 in favor of hiring a private security provider.

Outsourced Police

Outsourcing is another way governments improve police services at a low cost. A survey by the International City/County Management Association indicates that 6% of government authorities contract with other government authorities for crime prevention and control services.

Outsourcing of police services typically involves smaller municipalities contracting with county-level governments. This allows a smaller city to capitalize on the economies of scale enjoyed by a larger county.

The Detroit News recently reported on the success of outsourcing in Rochester Hills. The Oakland County city of 70,000 has outsourced police protection to the county instead of establishing a municipal police department. Rochester Hills citizens are estimated to save between $3 million and $7 million annually.

Although county police officers are government employees directly accountable to their sheriffs, the contractual relationship between the municipality and the county creates its own form of accountability to the city. The voluntary nature of a contract introduces a degree of competitive pressure not normally found in government agencies. If the county police fail to measure up, the city could vote to create its own department, hire a private service, or find another government provider.

Volunteer Reserves

Even small town police forces can look to private parties to help deliver essential police services. Police Chief Jim LaClear of Williamston, Michigan, initiated a volunteer reserve program to augment the city's police force. The program is still running after 19 years of operation.

The program consists of 13 volunteer reserve officers, about half of whom are planning a career

in police work. They complement the city's six full-time and three part-time officers, and usually work afternoon and evening shifts. The reserves serve alongside a state-certified officer at all times, and have the authority to enforce the law to the point of making arrests.

Chief LaClear and Williamston residents are pleased with the volunteer program, which allows the city to maintain an effective police force of 22 officers for the price of nine. The reserves have helped to deter violent crime in the city, according to LaClear. "The reserves are a very visible presence," he said. "They conduct bike patrols, police special events, and serve generally as a preventive measure against crime."

The Future of Private

Security in Michigan

As seen from these examples, there are a number of innovative ways that governments can contract out police services to improve quality and save money. Privatization need not result in a wholesale transfer of police functions to the private sector, but alternative police providers can clearly augment traditional public police forces.

Communities that have experimented with alternative and private-sector police services introduce market principles such as accountability to the customer, cost consciousness, and competition into what is regarded as strictly a government function. The possibilities for police privatization are limited only by the ingenuity and political courage of local leaders.

Could communities in Michigan one day contract out an entire police or sheriff force? Technically, this is possible, but it is not likely in the foreseeable future for the following reasons:

  • Popularity. Among government entities, law enforcement officers generally receive high marks for performance from the public. Citizens may supplement their own community police department but they are unlikely to disband it.

  • Law. Michigan's constitution is protective of a sheriff's turf: In fact, it mandates the sheriff's existence. When state Senator Robert Geake attempted in 1989 to pass legislation to allow for the privatization of local jails (which are controlled by the sheriffs), he had to introduce a package of 16 bills to comply with the constitutional issues.

  • Liability. Government police officers are immune from civil suits, but private police officers can be held liable for their conduct in the performance of their duties. In 1986 Louis Schimmel was appointed "receiver" of Ecorse, a small, financially bankrupt suburb of Detroit. As a court appointed receiver, Schimmel's position carried the weight of mayor and city council combined. During his tenure, Schimmel privatized virtually every government service so that the bankrupt town could function, but decided against privatizing the police force due to liability concerns.

These factors may make fully privatized police forces in Michigan unlikely in the near future, but as the benefits to privatization become more widely recognized by both public officials and citizens, the future of private officers will be secure.