The Private Arm of the Law
Some Question the Granting of Police Power to Security Firms
Washington Post Staff Writer
RALEIGH, N.C. -- Kevin Watt crouched down to search the rusted Cadillac he had stopped for cruising the parking lot of a Raleigh apartment complex with a broken light. He pulled out two open Bud Light cans, an empty Corona bottle, rolling papers, a knife, a hammer, a stereo speaker, and a car radio with wires sprouting out.
"Who's this belong to, man?" Watt asked the six young Latino men he had frisked and lined up behind the car. Five were too young to drink. None had a driver's license. One had under his hooded sweat shirt the tattoo of a Hispanic gang across his back.
A gang initiation, Watt thought.
With the sleeve patch on his black shirt, the 9mm gun on his hip and the blue light on his patrol car, he looked like an ordinary police officer as he stopped the car on a Friday night last month. Watt works, though, for a business called Capitol Special Police. It is one of dozens of private security companies given police powers by the state of North Carolina -- and part of a pattern across the United States in which public safety is shifting into private hands.
Private firms with outright police powers have been proliferating in some places -- and trying to expand their terrain. The "company police agencies," as businesses such as Capitol Special Police are called here, are lobbying the state legislature to broaden their jurisdiction, currently limited to the private property of those who hire them, to adjacent streets. Elsewhere -- including wealthy gated communities in South Florida and the Tri-Rail commuter trains between Miami and West Palm Beach -- private security patrols without police authority carry weapons, sometimes dress like SWAT teams and make citizen's arrests.
Private security guards have outnumbered police officers since the 1980s, predating the heightened concern about security brought on by the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. What is new is that police forces, including the Durham Police Department here in North Carolina's Research Triangle, are increasingly turning to private companies for help. Moreover, private-sector security is expanding into spheres -- complex criminal investigations and patrols of downtown districts and residential neighborhoods -- that used to be the province of law enforcement agencies alone.
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. The enormous Wackenhut Corp. guards the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia and screens visitors to the Statue of Liberty.
"You can see the public police becoming like the public health system," said Thomas M. Seamon, a former deputy police commissioner for Philadelphia who is president of Hallcrest Systems Inc., a leading security consultant. "It's basically, the government provides a certain base level. If you want more than that, you pay for it yourself."
The trend is triggering debate over whether the privatization of public safety is wise. Some police and many security officials say communities benefit from the extra eyes and ears. Yet civil libertarians, academics, tenants rights organizations and even a trade group that represents the nation's large security firms say some private security officers are not adequately trained or regulated. Ten states in the South and West do not regulate them at all.
Some warn, too, that the constitutional safeguards that cover police questioning and searches do not apply in the private sector. In Boston, tenants groups have complained that "special police," hired by property managers to keep low-income apartment complexes orderly, were overstepping their bounds, arresting young men who lived there for trespassing.
In 2005, three of the private officers were charged with assault after they approached a man talking on a cellphone outside his front door. They asked for identification and, when he refused, followed him inside and beat him in front of his wife and three children.
Lisa Thurau-Gray, director of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School in Boston, said private police "are focusing on the priority of their employer, rather than the priority of public safety and individual rights." But Boston police Sgt. Raymond Mosher, who oversees licensing of special police, says such instances are rare.
Private police officers "do some tremendously good things," Mosher said, recalling one who chased down a teenager running with a loaded gun.
In Durham, after shootings on city buses, the transit authority hired Wackenhut Corp. police to work in the main terminal in tandem with city police officers stationed on buses.
"There is a limit to the amount of law enforcement you can expect taxpayers to support," said Ron Hodge, Durham's deputy police chief, who said some of his requests for additional officers have been turned down in recent years. Although, as in most cities, some Durham police work privately while they are off-duty, Hodge said the demand for off-duty police outstrips the supply.
In one of the country's most ambitious collaborations, the Minneapolis Police Department three years ago started a project called "SafeZone" with private security officers downtown, estimated to outnumber the police there 13 to 1. Target Corp. and other local companies paid for a wireless video camera system in downtown office buildings that is shared with the police. The police department created a shared radio frequency. So far, the department has trained 600 security officers on elements of an arrest, how to write incident reports and how to testify in court.
When a bank was robbed in the fall, a police dispatcher broadcast the suspect's description over the radio. Within five minutes, a security officer spotted the man, bag of cash in hand, and helped arrest him.
Private police officers work across the Washington area, although their numbers have not been growing sharply. According to the D.C. police department, any private security employee who is armed must be licensed as a "special police" officer with arrest powers; the city has more than 4,000 of them, including at universities and some hospitals. Maryland and Virginia, which have different criteria, each have several hundred private police, according to law enforcement and regulatory officials.
In Virginia, the Wintergreen Resort has a private police department with 11 sworn officers. They include an investigator who last year helped solve a string of break-ins along the Appalachian Trail, identifying the burglar with images from the department's video camera when he drove out of the resort with a stolen car.
The Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services is also trying to foster closer ties between security companies without police powers and the police and sheriff's departments. The agency has begun training and certifying "Private Crime Prevention Practitioners" and soon plans to send security companies e-mails with unclassified homeland security threats and crime alerts.
Maryland has no similar collaboration, according to the Maryland State Police, which licenses security officers. The District is strengthening its supervision of security and private police, with new requirements for training and background checks having been adopted by the D.C. Council.
Some of the most sophisticated private security operations have expanded in part because of shrinking local and federal resources. The nation's largest bank, Bank of America, hired Chris Swecker as its corporate security executive last year when he retired as assistant director of the FBI. Even as identity theft and other fraud schemes have been booming, Swecker said, fewer federal investigators are devoted to solving such crimes, and many U.S. attorney's offices will not prosecute them unless their value reaches $100,000.
As a result, he said, federal officials now ask the bank's own investigators to do the work, including a three-year probe that helped police and the FBI piece together an identity-theft ring that defrauded 800 bank customers of $11 million.
In North Carolina, the state Department of Justice requires company police to go through the same basic training as public officers. They have full police powers on the property they are hired to protect.
Capitol Special Police's owner, Roy G. Taylor, was chief of three small nearby police departments and held state law enforcement jobs before starting the company in 2002. As Hispanic gangs were increasing, he said, "I saw a niche." The company has eight officers, some of whom are part time while working for area police departments.
They have used batons and pepper spray but have not fired a service weapon, Taylor said. Once, in an apartment complex where they worked in nearby Carrboro, Capt. Nicole Howard, Taylor's wife, dressed in plain clothes to attract a convicted rapist who had been peering in windows and stalking women. Then she arrested him for trespassing.
Today, charging $35 per hour, the firm has contracts with four apartment complexes, a bowling alley, two shopping centers and a pair of private nightclubs. A few weeks ago, two of the Taylors' employees, Capt. Kenny Mangum and Officer Matt Saylors, walked over to a car at the nightclub Black Tie to warn the men inside not to loiter in the parking lot. Catching a whiff of marijuana, they found seven rocks of crack cocaine in the ashtray and two handguns under the seat of the driver, who was a convicted felon. They called the Raleigh police to handle the arrest.
Because they are part of a private company, Taylor and his officers are mindful that customers are billed for the time they spend testifying in court.
"I try to make arrests only when absolutely necessary," said Watt, the officer who stopped the six men with the open beer cans. The company's marked patrol cars, he said, do not have radios to call for backup help or computers to check immediately for outstanding warrants or criminal records.
After satisfying himself that the six young men, lined up nervously and shivering in the cold night air, had no drugs, Watt let them go.
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