Blackwater Cops, What you going to do?
June 8, 2006 1:42 PM   Subscribe

What are the legal and social ramifications of a Private Police Force in the USA?

Many places in the USA, from gated communities to building sites take advantage of private security companies (or rentacops if you will). These employees normally do not have the full enforcement powers that a regular police officer possesses.

My question is this - if a private company was given equivalent legal enforcement powers on a permanent basis, akin to a permanent deputisation, and these officers worked directly for those willing to pay them, how would this affect the way crimes are dealt with? What effect would this have on society if we had a genuine privately owned police force?

I'm interested in the legal, social and criminal effect on society as a result of this change. This question is primarily as a result of thinking about Blackwater agents in New Orleans during the Katrina disaster and the powers they had during that time (i.e. shooting looters). What if they still had them today and were deployed in your neighbourhood? Would cops actually investigate burglaries if you paid them directly based on success? Anything you can think of, the more input the better.
posted by longbaugh to Law & Government (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
It seems to me that we already have that in many places in the USA. Many universities, including private ones, have their own police forces which can and do do unscruplous things.
posted by rbs at 1:50 PM on June 8, 2006

I used to live near this scary company, which frightened me because it was a private group, hired by and beholden to private individuals and companies, with the authority to make arrests because it hired "sworn law enforcement officers." This is apparently legal in North Carolina; I don't know what the laws are elsewhere.
posted by IshmaelGraves at 1:52 PM on June 8, 2006

Private cops aren't that rare. Hollywood has done them...And at least one private cop company is under the microscope these days.
posted by nomisxid at 1:55 PM on June 8, 2006

Railroads have had their own police forces for a very long time and in California, at least, those cops are considered peace officers and not security guards.
posted by buggzzee23 at 2:12 PM on June 8, 2006

Don't forget the campus cops at the University of Florida who thought it was in their remit to investigate someone for writing horror stories...
posted by Happy Dave at 2:16 PM on June 8, 2006

Response by poster: bitr0t - getting your stuff back ;)
posted by longbaugh at 2:20 PM on June 8, 2006

San Francisco Patrol Special Police is a private force funded by local citizens and/or merchants and has been around since 1847.
posted by buggzzee23 at 2:25 PM on June 8, 2006

Best answer: To actually try to answer the question re: the legal and social ramifications: Private police are not held to the same legal standards and constitutional checks as the government is, unless they're hired by the government and acting as government agents. There are also other legal ramifications.

Socially, allowing private companies to wield police-like power can make society a bit uneasy generally, and given the tendency of the rich to be the ones employing private police, I think it can reinforce class stratification. But it also allows corporations, factories, etc. to increase security without demanding an ever-growing government police force, so maybe that's a good thing.
posted by JekPorkins at 2:33 PM on June 8, 2006

rather simply, i would say that it perhaps would be linked to the idea that the customer is always right...the definition of 'criminal' or 'crime' could to some extent exclude those who are doing the hiring and what activities they might be engaged in, and enforcement might be more aggressively directed at those people they consider opponent or undesirable; thus, protection under the law would be unequal

and: on what basis would you deny someone the right to a private police force? if a private company could have one, why not a drug ring or a street gang?
posted by troybob at 3:08 PM on June 8, 2006

Well I've always thought about this happening:

"You've reached your local Police Emergency Response. Please state your emergency."


"Are you going to pay with a credit card?"
posted by lain at 3:27 PM on June 8, 2006

Best answer: One legal issue arising out of the use of private police forces is the application of 42 U.S.C. 1983, a federal statute which allows a civil action for violations of civil rights occurring under "color of law," to the private actor. Generally, such actions can only be brought against state actors, but when there is a close nexus between the state actor and the private entity employing the private police, or significant encouragement by the state of the private police, the private entity can be sued for deprivation of rights under color of law. If, as you say, "a private company was given equivalent legal enforcement powers on a permanent basis, akin to a permanent deputisation," they might be liable for these 42 U.S.C. 1983 actions and therefore forced to respect individual civil rights in the same way state actors are.
posted by jayder at 3:33 PM on June 8, 2006

Best answer: ....also, who would own the evidence collection and analysis systems?...would the private police force pay the local police force for that, or could the private police force do it and still guarantee the fairness of the process? would the private police force pay the justice system costs associated with challenges to its activities or its errors, or would we pay those costs?

...the police force is embedded in a lot of government functions, not the least the justice system...could that be privatized fairly as well?
posted by troybob at 3:34 PM on June 8, 2006

My concerns with a privatized police force is that is essentially a mercenary operation. i'm sure, (or at least, i'd like to believe) that the kind of person who would be attracted to that kind of job is also the kind of person who try to help someone in their time of need (something we would hope that a normal law enforcement officer would do).

But the fact is, most private police forces are not really designed to act as a investigative agency, they are typically glorified security guards. And with that comes the idea that money and responsibility to ones employer are more important than the idea of justice.

They are also not answerable in the same way that a regular law enforcement agent is. If a cop does something wrong, we can expect a judicial review. (in a perfect world of course). If a private security guard does something wrong, it might be in the best interest of the company employing him to cover it up, or at worst fire him.

If private companies want to keep them on staff, that is their business, just so long as i can call a real cop when i need one.
posted by quin at 4:15 PM on June 8, 2006

If a private security guard does something wrong, it might be in the best interest of the company employing him to cover it up, or at worst fire him.

Don't forget that they'd be liable for damages caused by his actions . . .
posted by JekPorkins at 4:33 PM on June 8, 2006

Best answer: And that's kinda my point, the company is liable, but because of the way the laws in our country work, liable doesn't necessarily end up meaning accountable.

The list of egregious acts that corporations have gotten away with is plenty long, and because it's in their best interest to not have that list get any longer, i could see a corporation hiding evidence of wrongdoing on the part of their employee.

Which admittedly, really isn't all that different from the behavior of many corrupt law enforcement agencies over the years. But at least when that corruption was discovered, we may have been able to do something about it. With the protections afforded to corporations, 'doing something' about it may not be a real option.
posted by quin at 5:41 PM on June 8, 2006

Response by poster: I've always been told by police officers I know that they have the capability to solve virtually any crime given manpower and funding and I fully believe this. I think that for those people with the funding and the desire for revenge/justice (delete as applicable), for the sake of argument let's call them "rich people", would likely make full use of such services.

Thanks all for the comments so far, if I haven't marked as favourite then it's because it's not an entirely appropriate response, more than likely a failure on my part to steer the answers in the direction I initially wanted.

I'm very interested in the direction troybob is headed above - not just a privatised police force but an entire justice system. I certainly don't want such a thing to happen as imho I think it would only serve to increase the margin of rich and poor represented in prisons, but I am interested in seeing what the MeFi minds think would be the results.
posted by longbaugh at 6:49 PM on June 8, 2006

This has been done, at the state level.

After 9/11, FedEx got Tennessee to recognize the FedEx Police as a bona fide state law enforcement agency. The problem was that regional terrorism task forces serve as conduits for intelligence on upcoming threats, and FedEx couldn't get that info. If there was a threat against FedEx, the cops couldn't just tell FedEx everything they know if the intelligence came from a classified source. But...if FedEx can create a law enforcement agency, then that agency can join up with the task force just as any local or county sheriff could. Thus, they then get to sit in on the task force meetings, and the agents can advise FedEx on protective measures, so long as they don't spill exactly how they know.

I think there was a FPP about this, laden with paranoia about private cops...
posted by Brian James at 10:18 PM on June 8, 2006

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