Defund the Police? Here Come the Private Security Patrols
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
As cities defund their police departments, they may turn to forces with even less accountability.
By Nick Fouriezos
- Cities facing calls to cut police funding are doing so — and then hiring private security.
- Private security officers are often better trained than police officers, but have lower accountability to the public.
Around 6 p.m. the day the George Floyd protests first hit Atlanta, Stephen Catus started getting deluged by phone calls. They didn’t slow down until noon the next day.
The owner of a private security firm that employs security agents across the state of Georgia, his typical clients used to be entertainment moguls: the athletes, musicians, actors and celebrities who flock to “Hotlanta” for its famed nightlife. But these were calls from business owners worried that looters would smash store windows and steal their wares; wealthy residents of gated communities afraid that protesters would soon spill out into the suburbs; and local governments whose police forces were overwhelmed, including those of the city of Atlanta itself. “We get called in to do the dirty work,” Catus says. “They don’t want the blood on their hands.”
In recent months, growing calls to defund the police have led to a widespread rethinking of the societal role of American police forces, which began as slave-catching patrols in the 18th-century South. Since May, at least 11 cities have started the process of cutting police budgets or disbanding police departments altogether. And it’s not just coastal centers like New York City and Los Angeles but also heartland hubs like Norman, Oklahoma, and Salt Lake City. This week’s unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, following the police shooting of Jacob Blake only fuels the fire. Yet these moves are also leading to an uncomfortable question: What comes after? In many cases, the answer is privatization.
Nowhere is that dynamic more evident than Minneapolis, where the City Council voted to defund its police force while at the same time spending $4,500 per day to hire private security guards to protect its members. In June, the Minneapolis Board of Education canceled its school security contracts with the police, then posted ads soon after for “public safety support specialists,” whose responsibilities would include things like breaking up fights.
We contracted anywhere from 20 to 30 Atlanta Police Department officers monthly.
Stephen Catus, private security firm owner
Meanwhile, Chicago hired more than 100 guards from three private firms to protect businesses in the South and West Sides for $1.2 million. Following criticism, Mayor Lori Lightfoot released a statement promising that the guards would wear ID and be unarmed. In Portland, Oregon, private security forces were hired to supplement the police force for nonviolent work, while in New York City, more homeowners have hired private guards to protect their properties since the protests began.
Many of the people who make up these private security forces are retired police officers, looking to leave behind the poor pay, terrible hours and health risks. “We contracted anywhere from 20 to 30 Atlanta Police Department officers monthly,” Catus says, roughly a third of his total staff of approximately 65 at his company’s peak. Minimum pay begins around $75,000, but some make as much as $1,000 a day, or $200,000 a year. Interest from cops looking for a career change has risen dramatically in the past few months, Catus says: “It’s honestly just because the badge is so dirty right now.”
That shift carries pros and cons, for both police and public. On the one hand, privatized security forces made up of residents protecting their own neighborhoods might be more accountable since those they “protect and serve” are their neighbors (plus, they don’t have unions striking deals to safeguard them from prosecution). Catus argues that private security forces often require more training than the typical police academy does. Because private security officers don’t have the legal protection of the badge, they’re taught to use extra caution when exercising deadly force. That distinction extends even to the types of targets they use at shooting ranges — while police practice on heads, shoulders and torsos as targets, Catus trains his forces to focus on arms and legs. “We train to disarm, to stop you in your tracks,” he explains.
However, private security agents still face far less public scrutiny than the average cop. Critics of police departments who are demanding more accountability, from everything to body cameras to access to public documents, may be sorely disappointed if police work ends up being passed on to private forces with few disclosure requirements.
Both police and private security forces tend to attract military veterans. “Veterans have priority in hiring,” notes Neta Crawford, a co-director of the Costs of War project at Brown University. There is evidence, she says, to suggest that combat veterans are likelier to fire their weapons. “Essentially, you’ve got a problem every society has: What do you with the violent individual you’ve trained to be violent, when they are no longer meant to be violent anymore?” Some veterans enter the industry after serving in private paramilitary groups: One of Catus’ business partners is a former soldier for Blackwater (now called Academi).
A shift toward further privatization in the United States would match global trends. Private security workers outnumber police officers in more than 40 countries, including Canada, China, India and Australia, according to research by the Guardian. In fact, half of the planet’s population lives in such countries, and even the U.S. has more than a million private security guards, compared to just 666,000 police officers. In the past decade, as budgets have been cut and interest in policing has declined alongside the profession’s reputation, cities from Detroit and Boston to Stockton and Oakland, California, have hired private security to supplement their police departments.
Now, with increasing activist calls, there is even greater pressure to dismantle and defund the police. Still, it’s unclear who is best served by a decrease in police forces. When asked whether they would prefer police to spend more, less or the same amount of time in their communities, 61 percent of Black Americans said they would prefer police presence to remain the same, while 20 percent wanted more of a presence, not less, according to a Gallup poll conducted from June 23 to July 6. And if private forces replace public ones, safety could soon become another luxury of the rich that the poor cannot afford.
- Nick Fouriezos