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Get ready for privatized police forces

Nov 6, 2015


by Max Rameau

The ongoing effort to privatize virtually every social common is poised to make a huge leap forward as the number of private police departments grows exponentially.

The latest trend in privatization should come as no surprise to those who endorsed the ever growing list of services once considered the exclusive domain of government that are now at least partially privatized, including public housing, welfare services, schools, automobile registration and even prisons.

Private police forces are in the spotlight as a result of the death of Alonzo Smith, an unarmed 27 year old Black male who died at the hands of a private police force in a Washington, DC apartment building. Several residents f the Marbury Plaza Apartments dialed 911 in the early morning hours of November 1, 2015, telling dispatchers that there was an ongoing assault and a man was running down the hallway banging on doors and screaming  ‘they are trying to kill me.’ [1]

DC Metro police (MPD) arrived on the scene at 4:03am only to find Smith already handcuffed, unconscious and not breathing at the feet of two security guards. Turns out, the two are not just security guards, but ‘Special Police,’ licensed by the state to detain, ticket and even arrest people, operating as a private police force. [2] MPD report getting Smith to the hospital by 5:00am, but days after the the episode are willing to report little else, leaving several major questions unanswered, such:

  • Was Smith screaming about being assaulted by the private police force or someone else? It seems that if Smith was the assailant, the police would have made that clear immediately and this delay only raises the specter of a cover up, the manufacturing of evidence or allowing guilty parties to collaborate stories.

  • The Smith family attorney claims Alonso was brutalized. If so, why haven’t the police reported that fact?

  • If a private police force beats someone to death- or, in the most generous light, captures and restrains someone who becomes unconscious and not breathing in their custody- are they required to call 911? If they did, why are the police not reporting it?

  • Why weren’t the private police arrested and charged with kidnapping, false imprisonment and murder?

  • What are the names of the two people, the two non-public private citizens, who last saw Alonso Smith alive?

  • Why did the original police report call the incident a ‘justifiable homicide’ and that no weapons were used?

  • What are the rights of people confronted by private police who are not officers of the state, but have guns and can, for all intents and purposes, arrest you?

  • How many other people, in DC and the rest of the country, have been detained to the point of unresponsiveness by private police forces?

  • What ‘special police’ arrangement does MPD have with Blackout Investigations, the private company that offers to rent unarmed security guards and even ‘active duty police officers’?  

  • We know that police cover up for their own, however, given the fact that those responsible for imprisoning Alonso Smith are not actually police officers, why is Metro police being so secretive about how Alonso Smith ended up dead?

While some media outlets have already begun the disservice of referring to those who assaulted, and possibly murdered, Alonzo Smith as security guards, the public should be aware that security guards have no right to handcuff or detain you, as that is considered false arrest or even kidnapping.

The precise scope of ‘Special Police’ powers is unclear, as is what separates them from traditional police, but that lack of is precisely the problem. And while members of private police forces do enjoy a broader range of rights than, say, security guards, those rights come mainly unencombered by many of the responsibilities normally associated with securing the right to represent the state’s power to detain, cite, arrest or even shoot people dead.

In a February 2015 piece, the Washington Post revealed a growing number of states allow for some version of a Special Conservator of the Peace, or SCOP, which is a private police officer. [3] SCOPs can wear uniforms, badges, guns and even call themselves police, but they do not work for the police department or government. The state of Virginia has roughly 750 registered SCOPs and recently doubled the training time for a license to 120 hours (Virginia State Troopers are required to take over 1,500 hours of instruction). The new rules mean that in the state of Virginia less training is required to gain the right to arrest people than is required to gain the right to file, color and clean nails at a salon as a licensed nail technician.

If the 120 hour requirement looks like another example of Virginia’s lax regulatory environment, think again: Washington, DC’s requirement for a Special Police license, which empowers the holder to legally restrain and arrest Black men at an apartment, is 40 hours of training. In order to secure the license which empowers the holder to legally cut hair of Black men at a barber shop, however, the DC government requires 1,500 hours worth of training.

The state of Maryland mandates exactly zero hours and zero minutes to secure a SCOP license. By contrast, in order to gain the right to engage in a round of laser tag, children in the state of Maryland endure a safety presentation that can last as long as fifteen minutes, assuming, of course, there are no questions at the end.

Worse still, as infuriating, protective of it’s own and utterly useless as police governing bodies, such as state departments of law enforcement, might be, one can certainly make the argument that police and police departments have some regulatory bodies to which they are answerable. There are, however, no regulatory or oversight bodies for private police forces, except for the profit making corporate structure that owns and manages them. And therein, lies the sheer horror of this development.

In relation to Black communities, police departments operate like occupying armies, controlling and containing those communities in service and protection of wealthier whiter communities. Under the dominant arrangement, Black communities must endure the indignity of substantially financing the occupying army, over which they have no control, reducing the costs of those in power to control the movement of those they oppress or exploit.

The semi-public records of public sector institutions has allowed for some transparency and created opportunities for accountability, or at least the fight for accountability, even as the power over police is firmly in the hands of wealthier white communities.

The emergence of private police forces, outside of the reach of public records requests and accountability to elected bodies, at least on organizational charts, will bring even those dubious benefits to a crashing halt. No more list of officers involved in shootings or public records requests. The police will be private corporations.

For a short time, the shift from public institution to private entity will at least prove more intellectually honest: those with real power over the police will simply hire them outright and put their orders in the service contract- which will be sealed as a trade secret- and pay directly for those service. We will no longer be able to pretend that the police serve and protect the entire public.

Those familiar with the history of police in the US will recognize this development as less of an innovation and more of a coming full circle. There were few questions about who the first American police departments were instituted to serve and protect, because slave patrols, funded by slave owners to contain and control runaway slaves and uppity freeman, were private.

However, because the wealthy do not like to pay for their own things and big corporations like to get paid, this emerging private police arrangement will not remain pure for long. Expect two major developments:

First, private police forces will evolve from one man departments into full corporate entities. Corrections Corporations of America will no longer be satisfied waiting on ineffective police departments, with their Miranda warnings and officer use of discretion, to bring in new customers, um, prisoners. Instead, these companies will opt to cut out the middleman and collect inmates themselves through their private police corporate partners.

War is so profitable that entire economic sectors have been built on financing war, supplying weapons for war and, most recently, providing privatized warriors to the US government through private military contractors. The industry is so plentiful and profitable that the only downside is the lack of a domestic US market for the same. Well, consider that problem solved.

The second development contains a spoiler alert: the next decade will witness the rise of the first charter police forces. New exciting innovative and private police forces will emerge funded entirely by public dollars. They will test new weapons, new crime fighting tools and new techniques to reduce public protests against policing. Best of all, private companies can engage in a range of behaviors that are simply frowned upon when conducted by official representatives of the government. Don’t like being videotaped by the government? Don’t worry, private police are not the government.

To be clear, this is not an argument that the current method of ‘public’ policing is fair or that it follows even the fundamentally flawed laws of the country, state or municipality.

Public dollars will flow out of public police departments and into the private police forces, who will enjoy an unprecedented ability to conceal their wrongdoing from victims and even those who feel safer when police abuse Black communities, but hate seeing evidence of those abuses on the news. Recent stories about graft, corruption and abuses in charter schools reveal that even those accounts are incomplete because of the protections afforded to the private companies that run those schools, will appear tame when compared to the abuses levied by greedy corporate entities protected by well armed and poorly trained mercenaries.

Sadly, a significant segment of the Black community will live to regret the arguments contorted in support of charter schools when those same arguments are used to privatize the police.

As the echoes of paddy rollers- the name given to the wagons used to round up captured runaway slaves and morphed into the modern paddy wagon- grow louder, it is increasingly difficult to refrain from theorizing conspiracies about the recent stunning turn of events in the realm of criminal justice reform. The same individuals and companies that lined their pockets through get tough on crime initiatives and building the private prison industry are now joining the call for reducing jail populations and mandatory minimums. Is this a victory or a trick?

If private police forces are paid from government contracts by the arrest, just like private prisons are paid by the inmate, then Alonso Smith might be just the beginning.




[1] “D.C. police investigate death of man found unconscious and in handcuffs,” Washington Post, 11-3-2015,  https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/public-safety/dc-police-investigate-death-of-man-found-unconscious-and-in-handcuffs/2015/11/04/205105a8-8317-11e5-9afb-0c971f713d0c_story.html

[2] Metro Police press release on death of Alonzo Smith, 11-3-2015, http://mpdc.dc.gov/release/death-investigation-2300-block-good-hope-road-southeast

[3] “Private police carry guns and make arrests and their ranks are swelling.” Washington Post, 02-28-2015, https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/private-police-carry-guns-and-make-arrests-and-their-ranks-are-swelling/2015/02/28/29f6e02e-8f79-11e4-a900-9960214d4cd7_story.html