Thursday, April 30, 2009

Contractors: Not just for the DoD anymore

By Boatboy

Jeremy Scahill has a compelling article up on Alternet about how local law enforcement is embracing the contracting trend.

This privatization trend is hardly new, but it is accelerating. While events such as the Nisour Square massacre committed in September 2007 by Blackwater operatives in Baghdad show the lethal danger of unleashing mercenary forces on foreign soil, one area with the potential for extreme abuses resulting from this privatization is in domestic law enforcement in the U.S.

Many people may not be aware of this, but since the 1980s, private security guards have outnumbered police officers.

"The more than 1 million contract security officers, and an equal number of guards estimated to work directly for U.S. corporations, dwarf the nearly 700,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States," according to the Washington Post. Some estimate that private security operate inside the U.S. at a 5-to-1 ratio with police.

In New Orleans, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of the city, private security poured in. Armed operatives from companies like Blackwater, Wackenhut, Intercon and DynCorp spread out in the city. Within two weeks of the hurricane, the number of private security companies registered in Louisiana jumped from 185 to 235.


Now it seems that some cities think it is a great idea to expand the use of these private forces using taxpayer funds.

The Wall Street Journal this week reported, "Facing pressure to crack down on crime amid a record budget deficit, Oakland is joining other U.S. cities that are turning over more law-enforcement duties to private armed guards. The City Council recently voted to hire International Services Inc., a private security agency, to patrol crime-plagued districts. While a few Oakland retail districts previously have pooled cash to pay for unarmed security services, using public funds to pay for private armed guards would mark a first for the city."

In a stunning development revealed late Wednesday night, Oakland dropped its plan to hire International Services Inc. after the firm's founder and two other executives were arrested on charges of defrauding the state of California out of more than $9 million in workers compensation.


Why do some Oakland officials want this? On the one hand, the belief that it will bring security, but also to save money:
Hiring private guards is less expensive than hiring new officers. Oakland -- facing a record $80 million budget shortfall -- spends about 65 percent of its budget for police and fire services, including about $250,000 annually, including benefits and salary, on each police officer.

In contrast, for about $200,000 a year, the city can contract to hire four private guards to patrol the troubled East Oakland district where four on-duty police officers were killed in March. And the company, not the city, is responsible for insurance for the guards.
As in many cities, this is a contentious issue in Oakland, which has struggled to deal with substantial violence on the one hand and police brutality on the other. According to the San Francisco Chronicle:
The areas where the armed guards were supposed to have been deployed have a disproportionate share of homicides, assaults with deadly weapons and robberies. … The crime rate in the area, according to a 2003 blight study, is between 225 and 150 percent higher than the city as a whole.
Scahill's point is well taken, since as we have seen elsewhere private contractors are bound neither by their oaths as public servants nor law nor treaty when it comes to fulfilling their mission objectives. The antics of Blackwater, Custer Battles et al on the streets of Baghdad, Jalalabad, Masar-e-Sharif or Khabul have been bad enough: transplanted to US cities employing private security as law enforcement, those tendencies will have tragic effects for those communities just as has been seen in Louisiana and California to date.

I can recall, from my years out West, the "patrol specials" that local businesses put on the streets. These were either off-duty or out-of-work police officers, whose backgrounds had been inspected, working in their own communities and funded by business and local organisations as a supplement to the SFPD presence. They were also a small minority, functioning as an adjunct rather than a functional replacement for the beat cops. The new trend looks nothing like the patrol special concept. The programmes Scahill outlines are far larger, with personnel brought in from outside the community (including as far away as Israel as he points out): these people will have little if any feeling for the communities they are tasked to serve. The results are tragically predictable.

It is understandable, particularly in the current crisis, for a municipality to seek to save resources, and contractors offer on the surface an immediate economy over their police department peers. However, the point that they will be less restrained, more aggressive, and far less interested in the rights of the residents of the communities where they are deployed is valid. Those tendencies will almost certainly lead to more litigation for abuse, harassment, and wrongful death, which regardless of the pains suffered by the communities affected will result in the economies of their employment vaporised by the resulting judgments. Since any municipality will have less invested in defending a contractor than a comparable law enforcement officer, sworn to public service and on the municipality's payroll, the likelihood that that municipality will pay some sort of damages increases, making the cost/benefit calculus untenable in the long term. Even if the cost in lost liberties and lives were acceptable, any community choosing to contract with private security for law enforcement faces the likelihood that the fiscal costs will become unacceptable even if that is not the case immediately.

Maintaining a police force is not an inexpensive proposition. But it is something any US citizen has a right to expect of his/her government. Handing off that responsibility may seem like an effective solution to the budget constraints of the present, but the costs in dollars, public trust and individual lives are nearly certain to eclipse any short term gain any city choosing to sidestep its responsibility to its citizens would see.

(Cross-posted from
View From The Docks.)

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