Neighborhood watch programs, security services, and police privatization

Though private security has an important role to play in community safety, it should not usurp the government’s responsibility to maintain order and protect our communities


Private security is big business. Estimates suggest that private security guards outnumber police in the US by a 5:1 ratio. The Department of Justice believes that “at least two million persons are ... employed in private security in the United States.”  In the United States alone, customers spend nearly $35 billion each year on private security services. Globally, the numbers are staggering, approaching nearly $100 billion annually.

In an unpredictable and unstable world, experts believe this number will only increase. Unable to meet all demands, public law enforcement agencies have explored private sector alternatives in lieu of increasingly scarce taxpayer dollars. Both the International Association of Chiefs of Police and the Department of Justice have embraced some of these public / private partnerships as a logical outgrowth of community policing. However, a dependency on private security instead of public law enforcement, over time, could erode the hard-won trust between communities and the officers who are sworn to protect and serve.

Looking at the history of law enforcement in America, it’s clear that private security firms have played a role since at least 1855. That’s when Allan Pinkerton founded the now-famous private security company.

Roles and Responsibilities
Private security firms provide specific tasks for individuals, companies, or concerns that demand a more immediate and tailored service than public police can provide, especially given the large number of resource constraints on the public sector. As a result, private security can serve corporate interests, supplement sworn law enforcement when necessary, and in the rarest-of-circumstances, replace public law enforcement officers.

Business and corporations that employ private security firms — or have their own in-house security personnel — want their security specialists to weigh risks, profitability, and corporate image, something that public police may not consider if their focus is on catching criminals for prosecution.

One example is the FedEx Police, recognized by the State of Tennessee as sworn law enforcement personnel. Though they are not uniformed, they apparently have full police powers, work closely with the FBI, and even have a seat on a regional terrorism task force.

FedEx is not the first or only corporate entity to have police powers. According to Gene Voegtlin of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, as early as the 1800’s the railroads established private police forces and today their authority remains intact on railroad property, but beyond that varies from state-to-state. Other modern examples are some metro area transit authority police and police at selected private universities and colleges that work under similarly-limited conditions.

The growth of private security to supplement public law enforcement has also accompanied the increase in gated communities. According to professor of urban policy Edward Blakely, somewhere between six and nine million U.S. citizens “live in single-family residences in gated suburban developments...” They live in what they believe to be an oasis from the crime and violence outside their walls.

The truth is more mundane.

Blakely’s research concluded that “gated communities do not have less crime than the suburbs from which they’re walled off,” the one exception being car theft. “For many,” Blakely continues, “the guards at the gate provide an artificial sense of safety.”

Richard Schneider, a professor of urban planning at the University of Florida, is another academic who questions the viability of gated communities to provide a crime-free environment. He believes that “[y]ou’re just as likely to be burgled by your next-door neighbor, especially if there are teenagers.” The gates don’t serve as an effective deterrent, argues Professor Schneider. Criminals “learn the code from the pizza guy...The effects of gating decay over time.”

If those living in a gated community (or outside for that matter) cannot afford to contract security services, they may turn to the less expensive alternative of an unarmed or armed nationally recognized Neighborhood Watch program. Typically, neighborhood watchers report crime and do not respond, leaving that responsibility to the police.

Residents in Georgetown, a non-community in Washington, DC, have adopted a program with support and training from the Washington DC Metro Police Department. This training is based, in part, on the Department of Justice’s Neighborhood Watch Manual.

Though not armed, this approach is similar to the one at the Retreat of Twin Lakes in Sanford, Florida where Trayvon Martin was shot and killed by an armed neighborhood watch member, George Zimmerman.

American History
In the United States, much of the debate over law enforcement privatization has centered on prisons, where, according to the Department of Justice, approximately 1.5 million prisoners — or seven percent — of our total prison population, are serving their sentence. Supporters of privatization, such as Florida’s governor Rick Scott, believe that the benefits of reported cost savings outweigh the possible limitations. Critics point out that privately run prisons reduce essential services so they can maximize profits and, in some instances resemble “a historically racist practice of the old Confederate South: convict leasing.” 

With the exception of prisons, private security services typically do not replace public policing authority. However, there are some examples where this has occurred and the trend could increase. State peace officer certification boards are responsible for opening this door. Tennessee, which modified the laws for the Tennessee Valley Authority to accommodate FedEx, is only one example.

In North Carolina, the Capitol Special Police look and act like sworn officers. The officers pictured on their home page look no different than those found on web pages of small departments nationwide. They have the power to arrest, so there is no need for them to detain a suspect and wait for sworn officers to respond. Though the Capitol Special Police supplement public law enforcement, elsewhere a community opted to replace their whole police force with private security.

In the early 1990s, and in the wake of a drug scandal that involved the then-acting police chief, New Jersey’s town of Sussex Borough disbanded their local four-person department and privatized police services. The private cure proved contentious and ultimately unworkable. The contract between the town and Executive Security and Investigative Services lasted only a few months. Originally meant to supplement the state police, the courts found that the company’s mandate exceeded statutory authority and forced Sussex to abandon the experiment. One New Jersey Deputy Attorney General argued in court that the contract put “a disruptive new layer between the citizens and law enforcement.” 

Ancient Times
There is, of course, another cautionary tale. The legionnaires, centurions, and tribunes that marched with C. Marius and L. Cornelius Sulla during the first two Roman civil wars (circa 88-81 BC) and, later, G. Julius Caesar (circa 49-45 BC) did not owe their loyalty to the Roman citizenry or the state. No longer did Roman citizens man the legions that had protected the Republic.

The conscripts’ and foreign mercenaries’ loyalties lay instead with their generals, who paid them, provided retirement options, and brought them glory.

The Republic fell under their weight.

Local police are not likely to cross the Rubicon as Caesar did to openly seize power. However, a contracted police force that works for a corporate entity is not subservient to legitimate political authority. Instead it owes its loyalty to paymasters, who in turn are responsible to shareholders, no matter how much rhetorical or contractual makeup is applied. 

We should heed the lessons of Sussex and Rome...

About the author

Retiring after nearly 22 years of active duty in the Army, Lance Eldridge worked as the director of a law enforcement training academy and served as a rural patrol deputy and patrol officer in Colorado. While in the military, he held leadership positions in a variety of organizations and has written extensively about US military strategy, operations, and history. He is a graduate of the US Army's Command and General Staff College and the Norwegian Staff College. He holds a Masters Degree in History and a Masters Degree in Strategic Intelligence. He has taught graduate and undergraduate courses in national security strategy, European regional security, US history, and terrorism. He now works in northern Virginia.

Contact Lance Eldridge.

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