John Whitehead's Commentary
Private Police: Mercenaries for the American Police State
“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 “recklessly” 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.