Has there ever been a historical example of a privatized police force?
January 10, 2011 7:56 PM   Subscribe

In any era of history, was there ever a privatized police force? If there ever was an officially instituted privatized police system, how exactly did it function?
posted by Philipschall to Law & Government (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I think this wikipedia article describes what you're looking for.
posted by Salvor Hardin at 8:00 PM on January 10, 2011

You'll have to decide whether this counts as a police force (to me, it does), but what immediately came to my mind was the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
posted by grumblebee at 8:03 PM on January 10, 2011 [2 favorites]

I agree with grumblebee; look into the Pinkertons and the other private detective forces that emerged in the late nineteenth century. You might be particularly interested in the Molly Maguire affair in Pennsylvania. From H. W. Aurand, From the Mollie Maguires to the United Mine Workers (1971):
[It was] one of the most astounding surrenders of sovereignty in American history. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency; a private police force arrested the alleged offenders; the coal company attorneys prosecuted them. The state only provided the courtroom and the hangman.
Worth reading if you have JSTOR access: Robert P. Weiss, "Private Detective Agencies and Labour Discipline in the United States, 1855-1946," The Historical Journal (vol. 29, no. 1, pp. 87-107).
posted by cirripede at 8:22 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A really important backdrop to this question is that policing in the modern sense -- a public and/or private force with both investigative, public-order, and arrest functions -- is a really new idea. It's usually credited to the British in the early 1800s, though of course there are earlier historical antecedents.

So on the one hand the answer is "of course" in that for most of history policing was privatized in one sense or another, but at the same time "not that often" in that for most of history policing didn't exist as a unitary function as we know it now. (Meaning that crowd control might be done by the the king's guards, neighborhood policing by informal vigilantes or a more formal neighborhood association, investigations by the victim's family or kin, for example; today, all those functions are held by one body.)

Policing is like the modern nation state (and is about as old), in that it so thoroughly permeates our lives and concepts of existence that we can't imagine a world without it, but is actually very new in history.
posted by Forktine at 8:27 PM on January 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

You might be interested in the San Francisco Patrol Special Police. It's a weird sort of auxiliary private police force that wears uniforms almost identical to standard police department ones and does foot patrols of neighborhoods, usually paid for by local merchants. They've been around since the 1850s. See also their Wikipedia entry. According to some, they are a valuable tool for community policing as their officers are free to take the time to get to know the neighborhood in ways regular police officers can't. Others call them Rent-a-cops with guns. Needless to say, there's a turf war between the (small) Patrol Special Police and the actual San Francisco Police Department. It's all rather nuts.
posted by zachlipton at 8:37 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Police as we know them are kind of a recent development, relatively speaking. I'm having a hard time answering your question because I don't know what you would be considered 'privatized' and 'police'. For the sake of expedience, call privatized 'individuals who are not acting under government authority' and go with the definition of police as 'individuals who are authorized to use coercive force to pursue public peace or enforce laws', then the question that you are asking seems a bit of a contradiction in terms. If a police force is officially instituted or supported in some way by government authority, it isn't entirely private. If it isn't backed by government authority, then I'd quibble over the use of the word 'police'.

Historically (and I'm talking about mostly Europe and England here because I'm sadly ignorant of the practices of other continents), the idea that a centralized government had the right to enforce the law and establish the types of offenses that should be punished was itself an innovation. Before kings started to have real power in Europe, law enforcement responsibilities were shared between individuals. So in England there was the tithing system (I think it was called) where men were divided into groups of seven who were responsible for making sure that each member of the tithing didn't break the law. If they did, the tithing delivered them up to the local constable (or other local head of law enforcement), lord, and later, king. You could argue that this is a form of private policing, but it did kind of operate according to the rules of the existing government, which was itself rudimentary. So this is one example of a functional privatized police force.

Things started to change when European kings made their bid for authority and power. Law enforcement functions were of interest to kings because offenders were often fined for breaking the law, which had the potential to provide a huge source of revenue for the monarch. What happened in England if I remember correctly was the establishment of a judiciary system controlled by the crown, which in turn gained increasing power over the activities of local constables. The position of constable used to be a duty shared by male citizens, who did the work in addition to whatever type of job that they actually did for a living. Increasing control over their activities and more specific and complex laws being formulated by the judiciary weren't accompanied by much, if any, formalization of the role of constable (things like pay or training).

Then, there was a sort of transition period where the demands of law enforcement duties in terms of the size of the population and the law on the books exceeded the abilities of the largely unpaid, untrained, part time constables. To make up for the lack of effective law enforcement, the government would pay a bounty to thief takers, who were sort of mercenaries who hunted down 'criminals' professionally. They had a reputation for corruption and brutality. These would probably be pretty close to the privatized police force that you're thinking about, and they existed alongside a public policing system for some time. It functioned in a vacuum of effective legal control where there were significant incentives (money) for a central government to ensure that law enforcement activities were bringing people into the courts.

Robert Peel is credited with starting the first modern police force in London around 1820-1830; the Wikipedia article probably talks about this. 'Modern', meaning, policing as it's practiced in the U.S. and England.

And actually, early police forces in the U.S. might also fit into the discussion of privatized police forces in that many operated on the fringes of corrupt political activities and served at the whim of whatever local boss had been elected. Private detectives and hired security again filled the void between official police who weren't terribly effective and the need for law enforcement in a highly populated and legally complex area, but operated on the behalf of citizens or corporations rather than the central government.

As a final note, I don't know that I'd call these informal agencies a 'force' as such. Law enforcement was sort of ad hoc when they existed. Modern security companies are sort of similar, but actual law enforcement by these agencies is rare, and usually the more coercive power they have, the more government regulation they experience.

Wow, that was long.
posted by _cave at 8:42 PM on January 10, 2011 [5 favorites]

If i remember right Klockers 1978--the Idea of Police--does a really good review of the history of policing in his book and touches on the issue of police privatization, BTW.
posted by _cave at 8:44 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

A lot of traffic policing in Abu Dhabi today is done by a private police force, working in conjunction with the regular police force. I'm not sure if this applies to all of the UAE, but Saaed and the regular Shurta Abu Dhabi are what they are respectively called here. I also don't know whether Saaed does other police work. Officially they are the "private security department," but their vehicles all say POLICE, they issue citations, determine fault in accidents, etc.
posted by bardophile at 8:54 PM on January 10, 2011

For a decent book on this subject, try The Enterprise of Law by Bruce Benson.
posted by amber_dale at 8:55 PM on January 10, 2011

Both of Canada's large railway companies (CN and CP, which also operate in the US) have their own private police forces.
posted by ssg at 9:11 PM on January 10, 2011

Also, depending on what you consider to be "private", New York City had two overlapping but distinct police forces concurrently in part of the 1850's. In 1857, there was open rioting between the Municipals (controlled by the city/the mayor) and the Metropolitans (controlled by the state), including mutual arrests and attempts (by the Metropolitans) to arrest the mayor himself, with the governor ultimately bringing the National Guard into the fray.

Maybe neither of these two forces were technically "private", but the state legislature had decreed that the Municipal police force was illegal, and they were backed up by the state judiciary. The lines are certainly blurry.
posted by dkg at 9:47 PM on January 10, 2011 [1 favorite]

Many universities and larger colleges have fully deputized police departments (depending on state law, e.g.).

Some states allow company police to be deputized, e.g.
posted by dhartung at 11:32 PM on January 10, 2011

_cave's summary is great - that 'public' police are actually the innovation.

A couple of examples in what you might call the police era:
Manchester Ship Canal Police
posted by Coobeastie at 11:51 PM on January 10, 2011

Both of Canada's large railway companies (CN and CP, which also operate in the US) have their own private police forces.

All of the US Class I railways have their own police forces. Railway police are paid by the rail companies and in the US have very mixed jurisdiction (49 USC 28101 and Section 1704 of US Crime Control Act). Typically they cover the railroads, right-of-ways and properties. Depending on the state, the railway police may have the standing of a full police officer, other states they are classified as "agents" or otherwise. Their jurisdiction also crosses state lines.

Also worth a read is anything about the Wackenhut security company. They are massive and do anything from building security to border patrol to Area 51 (or do they?).
posted by Mister Fabulous at 12:23 AM on January 11, 2011

Following on from Forktine's post, I'm assuming the OP's insinuation of the definition of "police" is some sort of bad guys/good guys dichotomy, sirens, handcuffs, juries, etc. However, I feel all these elements are really besides the point about what a "police" force is.

Feel free to disagree but, as Thomas Hobbes put in Leviathan, besides the inalienable right of an individual to use force when their life is under immediate threat, the basis of a liberal society is that the state, composed itself of the people, retains a monopoly on the use of force. In my mind, this is what "police" means - an appendage of the state sanctioned, and solely sanctioned, to deliver violence upon the people, in order to uphold civil society.

So at first blush the notion of a privatised police force is oxymoronic as, in my mind, once the state sanctions you to inflict violence on other members of society you're simply part of the state, regardless of your public/private role.

Even as I'm writing this though I feel something is missing...what about Blackwater in Iraq? The Iraqi state "sanctioned" them to do whatever they pleased (but the sanction derived from cumpulsion through the Coalition Provisional Authority), yet noone would argue that Blackwater then became part of the Iraqi state. Would Blackwater count as a privatised police force?
posted by asymptotic at 5:16 AM on January 11, 2011

Yes, would you could campus security police at private universities, especially when given full police authority by the state?

That might be my first question to you -- in most (all?) states, you only get to be "police" if the state authorizes you ... but in many states you may be employed by a private entity that maintains a private security force. Is the key here the private entity, or the official designation as a police officer? There are also a wide variety of public entities that maintain police forces of various sorts -- park police, for example -- that ARE law enforcement officers but aren't with the municipal police force.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 AM on January 11, 2011

I can't give you a lot of details on it because it has been a while since I was there, but at one point the city of Guayaquil, Ecuador had a semi-private police force. From what I understand, the federal police just weren't present in enough numbers to fight crime. The city hired/created non-profit corporation to help, called the Corporacion para la Seguridad Ciudadana (Corporation for Citizen's Security). Initially they provided armed guards, trucks, investigators etc. They could not make arrests so they usually worked with at least one Ecuadorian National Policeman who was deputized to make arrests.

I think over the last few years they have moved away from enforcement and work more on coordinating the various city-run agencies (like fire departments and 911).

Here's the wikipedia article in Spanish on the current version: http://es.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporaci%C3%B3n_para_la_Seguridad_Ciudadana_de_Guayaquil

Again, don't take this as gospel. This is all based on few conversations I had in Spanish quite a few years ago, but it might be worth looking into.
posted by dbrown7042 at 7:32 AM on January 11, 2011 [1 favorite]

You could say the brigades of the Ferme générale were a kind of private police force.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:17 AM on January 11, 2011

what about Blackwater in Iraq? The Iraqi state "sanctioned" them to do whatever they pleased (but the sanction derived from cumpulsion through the Coalition Provisional Authority), yet noone would argue that Blackwater then became part of the Iraqi state. Would Blackwater count as a privatised police force?

That's an interesting question. The Iraqi government wouldn't meet the modern definition of a civil society, because it hasn't cornered the market on coercive force in the area that it controls; our notions of modern policing don't hold up very well in those circumstances. Counterinsurgency in general straddles the line between military and police activity because like policing, the goal (according to doctrine) is civil order and maintaining the state of law, but the enforcers of civil order are foreigners. Police are commonly distinguished from the military not only by their mission, but also because they are a domestically controlled force.

So Blackwater doesn't fit tidily into this discussion, but according to the definition you posit, "an appendage of the state sanctioned, and solely sanctioned, to deliver violence upon the people, in order to uphold civil society" I don't think they would be considered police.
posted by _cave at 12:12 PM on January 11, 2011

@_cave: It's fascinating that you mention that "[In counterinsurgency] the goal...is civil order and maintaining the state of law, but the enforcers of civil order are foreigners". I grew up in Bahrain, where the majority of the police force is deliberately hired from a particular ethnic group in Pakistan because they're Sunni Muslims, which is the same ideology of Muslim as the ruling family, whereas the majority of the country is composed of Shiite Muslims. The police force is specifically selected to be distinct from the majority of the population, because the majority of the population don't (always) agree with the legitimacy of the state!

I'm not saying I disagree with your points about counterinsurgency, but actually agree that the notion of a modern state is fluid at best in many parts of the world and hence, again by my definition, so must be the notion of a police force.

I've been doing some Google-fo, and found this interesting article: Police: Private Police and Industrial Security - Scope Of Security Work, Nature Of Security Work, Legal Authority, Public Vis-Ã -vis Private Police
The growth of the private security industry is generally perceived as a twentieth-century phenomenon. However, policing by private organizations can be traced back far into history. This is particularly the case with market economies in which competing interest groups influence the growth of private policing in contrast to single party societies, or single order religious or political societies, where competing policing organizations are generally not tolerated.
Pretty sure the author has a far more expansive definition of police than me, particularly agreeing with e.g. cirripide. However, the paper quite vividly reminds me of Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, where the Federal Government is just one "state" amongst many other corporations, and the infrastructure that interconnects them is privatised.
posted by asymptotic at 2:57 PM on January 11, 2011

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