Friday 28th April 2017,
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The Problems of Private Policing: Penn, Philadelphia, and Beyond

By Jordan Dannenberg
Edited by Chris Hua

In 2012, there were 331 homicides in Philadelphia. Despite a recent reduction of the number of yearly murders, Philadelphia’s crime rate remains stubbornly high, even as murder rates in cities such as New York have plummeted to historic lows. Unfortunately, Philadelphia’s reality of consistently high crime is true for many of America’s largest cities, especially in the wake of the Great Recession, which induced massive budget cuts to municipal governments and resulted in the laying off of thousands of police officers. Nonetheless, what also remains true is that in the wealthy enclaves of America’s dangerous cities, such as the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, private security forces help to maintain exponentially lower crime rates than in their surrounding neighborhoods. The safety of students is unquestionably important. What is questionable, however, is the continued usage of private policing. Ultimately, communities such as the one existing in Penn’s campus are not isolated from the ones that surround them. Major institutions and their communities are part of a mutually beneficial relationship that provides, among other things, jobs and opportunities for hands-on learning. A reliance on private policing not only undermines publicly funded municipal forces, but also inhibits long-term goals of decreased crime. In truth, a city can never truly be safe if it lacks a fully funded police force and the full engagement of its vital anchor institutions—regional economic engines that promote development.

Those who are protected by private security forces, such as Penn students, are often unaware of the numerous problems with these private forces. These problems can be categorically grouped into three major issues.

Firstly, private forces leave public police forces unfunded and uncared for. Anchor institutions with their own private security forces, such as universities, lack incentive to promote, lobby for, and demand the allocation of municipal funds to public police forces. By demanding less from the public police, institutions such as Penn inadvertently compromise the abilities of those police. The lack of institutional support can be especially damaging to cities such as Philadelphia, whose police budget was cut by millions in the wake of the Great Recession. As is true with many government services, such as with prisons, privatization of services means less capable public options. For the majority of Philadelphia residents in desperate need of protection, that public option is unfortunately their only option.

The second and most obvious issue with private security forces is that they are disconnected from their broader communities. Hired to protect a subgroup of a neighborhood, private security forces are less inclined to feel responsible for those who do not contribute to their salaries. Moreover, a reliance on private security forces only increases the already grossly apparent income disparity between wealthy enclaves and the larger communities of which they are a part, which only results in higher crime rates. The repercussions of a disconnected and disengaged police force are particularly pernicious for an inner city struggling with violent crime. Effective policing is contingent upon strong and durable relations between officers and city residents. Citizens who are convinced that the officer on the street corner is there to protect them ­ – not simply those who are paying his paycheck – are much more likely to trust and cooperate with police. When citizens are convinced that the cop with the gun and the baton is an ally, not an enemy, they are much more likely to turn to him or her when they witness a crime being committed. Comparatively, when it’s perceived that the cop is there simply to protect a paying customer – that he has no commitment to anybody else – city residents lose faith in an institution committed to keeping them safe.

Thirdly, private security forces are rarely held accountable for their actions. Lacking the same regulatory provisions, community review boards, and requirement for Miranda rights as public police forces, private security forces may infringe upon the rights of the public. Even though city residents often allege that private security forces, including Allied Barton, infringe upon their rights and engage in misconduct, there is no standard procedure by which the government can oversee private security forces and hold them accountable for their transgressions. The most flagrant examples of misconduct include the continuous mishandling of rape and sexual assault allegations at universities across the country. It’s hard to win over a community and prove to them that you have a legitimate claim to the use of force when you don’t play by the same rules as public law enforcement. An unaccountable police force is also an ineffective one, as community support, trust, and respect are essential to efficacious law enforcement.

The most difficult question surrounding the reliance on private security forces remains: what can we do about their shortcomings? Surely, those in positions of power, such as university officials, would be unenthusiastic about relinquishing control over their security. Further, an immediate switch over to complete reliance on public police would be unrealistic and unsafe. Nonetheless, there are steps to be taken that would allow for a successful and gradual transition to reliance on public police forces. Instead of building armies of private police officers, institutions such as Penn should use their expansive wealth to invest in the hiring of more public police officers. Additionally, they should help to fund more robust officer training programs, including those that develop specific skills for policing the areas that previously utilized private police forces. Funding from anchor institutions will help to provide communities with the accountable police forces they need, while also helping to reduce the financial burden on cash-strapped city governments. It will allow municipal police departments to focus more of their spending on effective crime reduction tactics, such as more thorough follow-up investigations and more hot-spot policing. Additionally, major institutions should set up advisory committees of crime experts, students, and administrators to help determine the best means by which to tackle crime in their own neighborhoods.

The issue of creating safer and more equitable societies is of great importance. Indeed, many of the world’s most celebrated thinkers, policymakers, and politicians have continuously worked to address the problem of crime. The solutions outlined here will not instantly provide an answer to the problem they all failed to solve, but they provide a starting point from which to address a significant problem. The trend toward privatization does little to secure of our streets and safeguard our neighborhoods. In fact, it has only made the situation worse – and will continue to do so. The answer now is not to pull out, to disengage, or to detach. Neither is it to abandon our most storied public institutions, especially police departments, or to cut and slash when the going gets tough. Rather, it is time to get tough, to reinvest, and reengage. In order to improve and fortify our municipal police systems, we must rebuild, remake, and reassert our faith in public service.

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