“Defund Police” Doesn’t Mean Hire Private Guns — But Cities Are Doing Just That

When the uprisings against police-perpetrated violence first hit Chicago in late May, the phone lines of AGB Investigative Services started ringing off the hook.

The private security firm employs more than 750 security guards throughout 12 states and the District of Columbia. Its clients typically include government agencies, businesses and individuals seeking security and concealed carry training.

Since May, though, the firm has been deluged with requests from business owners worried that uprisings will target their store windows and merchandise; wealthy residents on the city’s North side fearing for their gated communities; and the city itself, seeking to supplement its own police force.

During a weekend in June, Chicago spent up to $1.2 million to hire AGB and two other private security firms to supply more than 100 unarmed guards “to protect the local retail shops, grocery stores and pharmacies,” on the city’s South and West sides, according to Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office. The contract was temporary, but Tifair Hamed, AGB’s vice president of marketing and communications, says the city can tap the firm’s services on an ongoing basis.

Overall, Hamed says, business has increased by about 25 percent for both the firm’s retail sector and concealed carry training services since May. Hours for guards stationed at retail shops, utility substations and commercial real estate have increased, and the firm’s clientele has expanded to include hotels. The company is looking to hire as many guards as possible, she says.

But Lightfoot’s decision to hire private security to patrol the city in June raised concerns from activists, as well as at least two freshman aldermen who said they’re worried about Chicago’s liability, and that security guards aren’t subject to the same (albeit minimal and grossly inadequate) accountability measures as police.

We’ve heard from hundreds of neighbors this week who feel police make them feel less safe, not more,” tweeted Alderman Matt Martin on June 5. “We need to take these concerns seriously, and not add unaccountable security officers to the streets.” Following additional criticism from Alderman Daniel La Spata, Mayor Lightfoot released a statement promising that the guards would be unarmed and wear ID.

Chicago isn’t the only city increasingly relying on private security firms to supplement patrols amid national uprisings over racist police-perpetrated violence. Portland, Oregon, has also hired private security amid the uprisings. The city approved a $10 million contract with the firm G4S Security Solutions just for security at City Hall last year.

Like Chicago, Portland levies a special tax on property owners in certain business districts for services including extra police, transportation, graffiti removal — and private security. But a city audit released last month found that the city failed to conduct oversight over how these “Enhanced Service Districts” spend their collected funds.

The audit found that three private security firms employed by the districts treat unsheltered people in those areas more harshly. It also found that renters have little say in their districts because they are largely controlled by property and business owners, and that the city failed to even collect complaints made against security guards in the districts.

It’s also likely federal private contractors were deployed by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to repress Portland’s uprisings in July. One DHS unit deployed by the Trump administration this summer, the Federal Protective Service (FPS), employs 13,000 security guards nationwide through its contracts with private security firms.

In fact, FPS spends $1.5 billion on “incident response” to contract security guards to conduct crowd control at federal properties, such as those FPS was tasked with protecting in Portland. Many of the agency’s contractors come from security firms like Triple Canopy, which merged with Erik Prince’s Academi, formerly Blackwater, in 2014. (Speculation that federal agents in Portland were mercenaries for the private security company ZTI or contracted by Prince turned out to be false, however.)

Security guards are flooding into other major cities like New York and Seattle, as retailers and homeowners hire private protection for their properties amid national rebellions. Demand for both unarmed and armed security guards in “every market is as high as it has ever been,” according to a New Jersey security firm cited in The Wall Street Journal.

This year’s surge in demand is accelerating a neoliberal policing trend that was already well underway over the past two decades. The ranks of security officers began to outnumber those of public sector cops in the U.S. after many police department budgets saw cuts following the economic crash of 2008. Those cuts, however, didn’t result in less policing but rather, an overall shift toward privatization.

Today, the U.S. has more than 1.1 million private security guards, compared to 666,000 police officers. Private security workers outnumber police in more than 40 countries, according to The Guardian. The industry now dwarfs what is spent trying to end global poverty.

Civil liberties proponents warn that this year’s flood of private security into major cities could become the new normal. They caution that municipalities may respond disingenuously to the movement to defund police by decreasing public policing budgets while quietly fueling an even greater shift toward privatization of policing and surveillance.

While organizers are clearly calling for the dismantling of policing — whether public or private — city officials may attempt to simply reallocate budgets from local police departments to hired guns.

Replacing Police With Private Security

At least 13 cities have cut funding from police department budgets or decreased officer numbers since Minneapolis led the charge by voting to disband the city’s police department in June. Several more have initiated the defunding process.

Austin, Texas, is the latest city to decrease funding for its police department, joining cities in other red states like Norman, Oklahoma, and Salt Lake City, Utah, as well as major coastal centers like New York and Los Angeles. Last week’s unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has renewed calls to shift city funds toward community health, safety and violence prevention programs.

But some of the same cities that have voted to cut police funding have also experienced an influx of private security guards in recent months. In addition to wealthy residents and businesses hiring more security in New York and Los Angeles, Minneapolis council members came under fire for spending $4,500 per day to hire private guards for their own protection after voting to disband the city’s municipal police.

As Truthout has previously reported, even before this year’s movement to defund police emerged, the past decade saw cash-strapped cities like Detroit, Oakland, New Orleans, Baltimore and Atlanta hire private security to supplement their police departments.

Private security officers as a replacement mechanism, however, has become most pronounced in local school districts where school boards are replacing school resource officers (SROs) with security guards.

In June, for instance, the Minneapolis Board of Education canceled its school security contracts with the Minneapolis Police Department. The next month, it posted 11 job openings for “public safety support specialists,” with law enforcement experience whose responsibilities would include breaking up fights. Unlike SROs, the security officers are not allowed to carry guns on campus or make arrests.

The Minneapolis Federation of Teachers discovered the job postings and quickly organized a protest of about 100 teachers and families outside the district headquarters. The district later released a statement saying the job postings mistakenly required a law enforcement background, and that most of the people scheduled for interviews do not have that experience. Despite the protests, the district moved forward with its hiring decisions but did ultimately allow teachers to sit in on interviews with candidates.

Federation President Greta Callahan, a teacher at the city’s Bethune Community School, says the district’s hiring of security officers doesn’t make any sense, especially since classes are being held remotely this semester amid the pandemic.

“There is zero reason to put so much money into [security officers] who don’t need to be there right now,” Callahan says. “We see this like everything else; this is about profiting off of our children. Public schools are being dismantled…. So, if they can create distrust within the system, then they can defund it. If they can defund it, they can privatize.”

Callahan said she’d rather see the district hire from within, reallocating the funding for security officers to underpaid education support professionals like counselors and other social workers already familiar with students. The Federation wants to see the district’s schools fully funded so that it doesn’t have to rely on security officers in the first place.

“We just view [security guards] as a Band Aid,” Callahan said. “We actually want to solve the real issues, which is that our students need support and help, and we’re not giving it to them. By defunding us for three decades, we have lost a lot of the people who could have helped with many of the issues we’re seeing in our schools right now.”

Beyond Minneapolis, the Denver public school district passed a resolution in July to reduce its SRO unit by 25 percent by the end of 2020 and eliminate all remaining officers by the end of the 2020-2021 school year. Yet the district will retain 100 unarmed and armed security officers.

Some of the nation’s largest private police forces already patrol college campuses, such as the University of Chicago Police Department, which has jurisdiction over more than 65,000 Chicago residents and has the same power to search, ticket, arrest and detain citizens as a municipal police force. Student organizers are pushing university leaders to defund, and eventually abolish, the school’s police force.

Meanwhile, the libertarian right is hailing private security as the solution to systemic police-perpetrated violence as cities reimagine public safety in response to growing calls to defund municipal police departments. Private security, libertarians argue, gives “rise to positive competitive dynamics” that allow citizens to gauge their respective performance and “cost effectiveness.”

The reality is that guards operate with even less oversight than public police: Shootings by private security are rarely investigated or even reported. In fact, most state regulatory agencies don’t require security guards to file firearm discharge reports. Further, citizens’ legal protections in encounters with guards are often unclear.

Outsourcing Accountability

The private security industry’s problems mirror those of municipal police departments, including civil rights violations, excessive force and guard-perpetrated shootings. Armed guards who shoot fleeing suspects at shopping malls, apartment complexes and parking lots seldom face any consequences, even in states where security companies are required to file firearm discharge reports.

Typically, regulatory agencies tasked with monitoring the private security industry only take action when a conviction of an armed guard has been secured in the courts first. Regulators usually rely on slow criminal investigations to determine whether or not a firearm license should be revoked.

Moreover, security guards typically receive only a small fraction of the training municipal police must undergo to work as beat cops. Concerns over lax oversight and training have prompted bills in state legislatures over the past decade, but the industry’s growth continues to outpace regulation.

As security expert Bruce Schneier notes, laws designed to establish due process and other legal protections from municipal police often don’t apply to the private security industry. While a complaint regarding a municipal officer can be taken to an elected board of police commissioners, no such mechanism even exists for security guards.

Likewise, private firms can’t be compelled to open up their records to the public, even when, in many cases, they are performing public functions. The Freedom of Information Act and other state open records laws typically don’t apply to private security firms.

The private sector also has wider latitude to collect private information, often the same information the government is prohibited from collecting from citizens. That information is then sold to the police, who often moonlight part time as security guards.

AGB Investigative Service’s Hamed argues the company’s security guards “come from the neighborhoods which we’re protecting” and “are the largest community policing resource for the city of Chicago.”

But just as “community policing” and other reforms fail to deal with the systemic racism and violence endemic to policing, similar approaches in the private sector are likely to simply exacerbate economic inequality and the already violent and racist culture of public policing as the industry expands.