They can be found in shopping malls, office buildings, and
government housing units. They wear badges on their uniforms and
sometimes carry handcuffs and nightsticks. But they are not
police officers: They are security guards, and they work for
private companies to provide customers with sound protection at a
low cost. And public schools concerned about student safety could
benefit from their expertise.
Private security, including both commercial and home security
protection, is the second fastest growing industry in America
today, expanding at 8% per year. In 1994, the private security
industry did more than $50 billion in business and it is
estimated that there are now three private security guards on the
beat for every government police officer.
The reason for this is simple. Building owners who contract
with private security companies are assured of constant and
reliable protective service. Unlike police officers, who can only
respond after trouble has occurred, security guards tend
to prevent trouble by remaining on a building's premises at all
times. Crime prevention becomes their main task.
The Starrett City apartment complex in Brooklyn's dangerous 75th
precinct illustrates how effective private security can be. The
complex houses 20,000 tenants and reported a total of 67
robberies in 1994. In the neighborhood just outside the complex
there were 2,548 robberies and a higher rate of robberies per
resident. The complex has been described as an oasis in a vast
wilderness for its dramatically lower crime rate. Starrett City
resembles an affluent suburb, though 90% of its residents receive
rent subsidies. The residents are well aware of the reason for
their island of safety: Nearly 90% of tenants surveyed believed
they would not be safe without their private security guards.
This demonstrated effectiveness has led some schools
districtssuch as New York Cityto hire private security guards to
help police school violence. Tragic headlines such as those from
the recent schoolyard shootings in Jonesboro, Arkansas, have many
parents understandably concerned about their children's safety.
The Detroit school district, which employs 172 public safety
officers in 37 schools, should consider contracting out for
security. The safety officers, as employees of the district, earn
a combined $5.4 million annually. According to the Detroit Board
of Education, noncash benefits equal $2.1 million, or 40% of the
security officers' salaries. With savings from privatization
often exceeding 15%-20% of total costs, the district could reap
$1.5 million annually with privatization. Private firms also have
a reputation for providing superior quality services.
Contracting for security could also save Detroit Public
Schools the cost of its expensive fleet of security vehicles.
According to district records obtained by MPR the cost of
just 15 (of the 24) cars used for district security exceeded
$370,000. (The cost of the remaining nine is either listed as
"unknown" or are leased for a price not disclosed by
the Detroit Public Schools.) Selling them off would provide the
district with a large, one-time cash infusion. If the sale of
security automobiles equaled just 50% of known assets the
district would receive $185,000.
The expense of security cars goes beyond lease and purchase
costs; they must be maintained and operated. Unfortunately, the
Detroit Board of Education claims to have no record of what is
spent on individual repairs, fuel, and basic maintenance such as
oil and filter changes. Contracting out could relieve the Detroit
Public Schools of these costs and alleviate some record-keeping
Private security can save money, but can it do the job?
Private guards can and do make arrests, conduct investigations,
write tickets, and perform most other police functions within
their patrol areas. Presence is the greatest contribution
of a private security firm. As watchful eyes, they can raise the
cost to a student of breaking a school's rules or committing a
crime. That cost? The increased probability that he or she will
be caught. But the private security guards must often contend
with several forms of accountability: They likely must abide by
the regulatory authority of the local police commission, as well
as meet the contractual obligations of their customer. In
addition, unlike government police officers they can be held
accountable for large financial awards for civil abuses.
The booming growth in the private security business suggests
that companies are satisfying their clients with first-rate
protection at reasonable costs. Detroitand other school districts
with security needsshould contract with private security firms
for the good of their employees, taxpayers, and most importantly,