Traditionally, the government has funded the police and other law enforcement agencies. Law and order is an essential function of a civil society. However, since the 1990s, many individuals and corporations have hired private security contractors for supplemental protection. Private policing has both supporters and detractors who have weighed in on its legal, societal and economic benefits or lack thereof. Perhaps, the only major point of agreement is that it will continue to play a significant role in the evolution of policing.
Supporters of private policing have praised its economic benefits for both the public and private spheres. If a private security force patrols a gated community, the police department has more resources to focus its attention on high-crime neighborhoods. Further, the wealthy can assume the financial costs of protection rather than passing on the tax burden to working families. On the other hand, the popularization of private policing may encourage municipalities to cut budgets for public policing and let security firms handle the resultant workload.
Many critics argue that government organizations are generally more resistant to change than private companies. By allowing a wider margin of experimentation, private policing cuts down on unneeded bureaucracy and focuses upon more effective law enforcement. A good example would be Crime Intervention Services, a private security firm that patrols low-income apartment complexes. As noted in the article “The Benefits of Privatized Crime Control” by The Independent Institute, the agency used their increased flexibility to undertake an intensive form of community policing that reduced crime by an average of 50 percent after they took over patrol duties.
The Constitution guarantees equal protection to all citizens. Though private policing does not violate the letter of that law, detractors would argue that the practice harms it in spirit. The more a society relies upon private contractors to enforce laws, the less they will invest money into their own police departments. As a result, the social fabric could fray as only those with the means to afford private security will enjoy the safety that should be enjoyed by all. Alternatively, a city might contract a private security agency that is more concerned with cutting corners to make a profit than maintaining law and order.
Public police departments have long-standing policies and procedures for handling misconduct. Private security firms do not. In fact, they may try to hide misconduct in order to protect themselves against liability. A good example of private security gone awry would be how the United States outsourced security to Blackwater in Afghanistan. Instead of using military personnel to guard embassy officials, the government employed Blackwater, whose employees engaged in multiple instances of killing civilians without provocation. Though these incidents occurred abroad, Blackwater and similar companies have been hired for domestic security in post-Katrina New Orleans and elsewhere.
Noel Lawrence has written on cultural affairs and cinema for Release Print and OtherZine since 2000. He holds a graduate degree in Russian literature from Stanford University and currently lives in Los Angeles.