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The Rise of Privatized Policing: How Crisis Capitalism Created Crisis Cops

With more private security guards than public police officers, what are the consequences for accountability?

With more private security guards than public police officers, what are the consequences for accountability?

On February 13, 2014, Thomas Michalak and Cheryl LaBash, who organize with Moratorium NOW!, a coalition fighting foreclosures, evictions and water shutoffs in Detroit, fired off some quick tweets encouraging others to join their group in a demonstration opposing the state-appointed emergency management of Detroit’s bankruptcy. They’d planned the protest for the next day at Detroit’s Campus Martius Park.

LaBash, a retired city employee, tweeted from Moratorium NOW!’s account that activists were planning to meet at the park to hand out flyers and circulate the group’s petition calling on Emergency Manager Kevyn Orr to make big banks pay the brunt of Detroit’s debt obligations and to protect the city’s pensions (including her own).

What the two didn’t know was that operators at a private surveillance center in downtown Detroit’s Chase Tower were watching their tweets closely behind a bevy of computer monitors.

The surveillance center is operated by a subsidiary of Rock Ventures, which serves as the umbrella entity for Quicken Loans CEO and mega-developer billionaire Dan Gilbert’s business and real estate investments. The center works in partnership with the Detroit Police Department (DPD) and private security firms to monitor surveillance footage from 300 cameras covering more than 2 million square feet of property Gilbert owns in downtown Detroit.

The next day, when a group of four activists, including Michalak and LaBash, headed over to the park’s historic Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument to pass out flyers as planned, they were quickly confronted by a private security guard with Guardsmark, the security firm hired by Detroit 300 Conservancy, which privately manages the city-owned park. The guard asked the group to leave and warned them they would be arrested if they refused.

“I said, ‘Isn’t this public property?’ and he said, ‘Yes, but it’s privately managed.'”

“I said, ‘Isn’t this public property?’ and he said, ‘Yes, but it’s privately managed,'” Moratorium NOW! organizer Abayomi Azikiwe told Truthout about the confrontation.

A DPD officer parked across the street backed up the security guard, telling the activists from his patrol vehicle that their activities were against park rules. The four weren’t convinced. They continued to argue with the guard while standing beneath the park’s red light pole banners proclaiming the space “Detroit’s Gathering Place.”

The confrontation served as a stark reminder of the chilling implications of exactly what the activists were there to fight: the mass privatization of Detroit’s public services and assets in the aftermath of the largest municipal bankruptcy filing in the United States.

“They have an agenda of suppressing dissent in the downtown area because they’re trying to protect an image of Detroit which we don’t agree with,” Azikiwe said.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Michigan took up the group’s case, filing a federal lawsuit in January against the Detroit 300 Conservancy and Guardsmark, and the City of Detroit has agreed this month on a series of interim rules safeguarding First Amendment activities at all of the city’s public parks, regardless of whether they are managed privately or publicly.

The city, while not technically a defendant in the suit, is representing the DPD officer who backed up the security guard, and introduced the new rules to help settle the case, which has not yet been dismissed. Officers and private security guards will now reportedly be trained to enforce rules allowing groups to gather, leaflet and demonstrate at all the city’s public parks.

Private entities are working in concert with the DPD to create a mostly privatized, “quasi-surveillance state” in downtown Detroit.

“With the continued privatization of government functions in Detroit and throughout the country, we thought it was critical to establish the principle that our constitutional rights cannot be outsourced out of existence,” said Michael Steinberg, the ACLU of Michigan’s legal director who represented the activists in the case.

Steinberg said that private entities such as Detroit 300 Conservancy and Guardsmark are working in concert with Gilbert’s Rock Ventures subsidiaries and the DPD to create a mostly privatized, “quasi-surveillance state” in downtown Detroit — setting up a “frightening” situation for dissenters in the area.

An ongoing series of crises in Detroit fueled by the city’s state-imposed bankruptcy filing in 2013, including most recently devastating water shutoffs and the looming possibility of water privatization, has created an intense sequence of neoliberal shocks on Detroit’s populace, and provide a cogent example of author Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine theory at its worst. Her theory describes a strategy in which capitalists and politicians alike exploit crises to advance neoliberal policies while the public remains too distraught to effectively resist such policies.

Detroit’s increased reliance on private security and a private-public surveillance partnership in monitoring dissenters provides a model backdrop to the kind of crisis capitalism at work not just in Detroit but across the United States as the ranks of privatized police forces continue to surge since the September 11, 2001, attacks — now dwarfing the public sector as budgets for police departments experience cuts throughout the nation.

However, policing cuts haven’t happened uniformly across the country since the economic downturn of 2008. A 2013 report from the Police Executive Research Forum found that police department budgets nationally have been recovering since 2010. Of the 416 police agencies that responded to two Research Forum surveys in 2010 and 2012, 51 percent reported budget cuts, down from 78 percent in 2010.

But such cuts haven’t resulted in less policing; rather, they’ve resulted in an overall shift to private policing.

Steinberg says he expects to see more cases involving private security firms infringing on constitutionally protected activity as the numbers of security guards continue to climb. “Unfortunately, I think it’s going to take more cases like our Campus Martius case to establish limits [on private police],” he told Truthout.

While many on the Libertarian right have hailed private police as a solution to systemic police violence because the security industry is “driven by efficiency and threats from liability,” a closer look at the industry reveals that guards receive only a fraction of the training required for municipal cops. Plus, shootings by private armed guards are rarely reported and investigated, and citizens’ legal protections in encounters with guards remain unclear.

The private security industry is so poorly regulated, in fact, that only about a dozen state regulatory agencies require security guards to file firearm discharge reports.

The Rise of Private Police

The use of private police is, of course, nothing new. Industrial magnates Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller relied on such forces as the infamous Pinkertons, known for breaking labor strikes and infiltrating unions, to protect their business interests.

Nineteenth century industrialists’ reliance on such forces came to be so great that in the late 1890s, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency employed more private agents than there were soldiers in the standing army. Today, the numbers of security guards still rival the number of people on active duty in the armed forces, and completely eclipse the number of municipal police officers on duty.

The armed security industry is increasingly supplementing public police forces in many poor urban areas.

The numbers of private security guards began to grow in the 1970s, but the industry has boomed since the September 11, 2001, attacks. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are nearly 1.1 million private security guards in the U.S., overshadowing the Bureau’s count of 640,000 public police officers. Some of the United States’s largest private police forces regularly 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.

Other private security forces patrol both upscale neighborhoods on behalf of wealthy homeowners’ associations and low-income housing projects — sometimes being contracted with grant money from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to police poor residents. Armed guards also patrol corporate office complexes and museums.

The armed security industry is increasingly supplementing public police forces in many poor urban areas, in places such as Oakland, New Orleans, Baltimore and Atlanta. Some small towns like Foley, Minnesota, are going beyond simply supplementing their police departments, opting instead to replace them with private security entirely.

As private police forces gain jurisdiction over campuses, parking lots, neighborhoods and even entire towns, cash-strapped local and state governments turning to such firms as an answer to their budget woes are increasingly granting the industry traditional police powers, including the ability to make arrests — a function that used to be the sole province of municipal policing.

The provisions of some states, such as Virginia, allow private citizens to petition courts for such police powers, but how such authority is granted typically varies from state to state.

“The DPD has become an extension almost, of Rock Ventures.”

Private security guards increasingly resemble traditional beat cops, calling themselves police, wearing similar uniforms, flashing badges and driving patrol vehicles with flashing lights. Not only do many citizens frequently mistake private guards for public cops, but often even magistrates and judges do as well.

In most states, private guards almost always work closely with municipal police departments, exchanging information and often turning over felony-level crimes to the city department to handle. Oftentimes, armed security guards are off-duty police officers who have been contracted by a government agency or are moonlighting for private firms.

In Detroit, activists and lawyers say the private security industry and municipal police are entwined. Nicholas Klaus, who is the student national vice president of the National Lawyers Guild and worked on the Campus Martius case for a time, told Truthout that DPD officers have been instructed to take direction and dispatch from Gilbert’s Rock Ventures command center. “The DPD has become an extension almost, of Rock Ventures,” he said.

A DPD public relations representative told Truthout that the department’s Secondary Employment in Uniform Program allows private vendors such as Rock Ventures to use off-duty DPD officers to work in a law enforcement capacity for their businesses. The program was established by city ordinance.

“When working with a vendor, they may call and request us to do certain things, and we receive command from them. However, if it’s a criminal matter, we touch base with our police department,” said DPD Officer Nicole Kirkwood.

Lax Regulation

An investigation by the Center for Investigative Reporting in collaboration with CNN shows that many state regulators “repeatedly ignore or fail to thoroughly investigate guard-related shootings, leaving inadequately trained, traumatized or potentially dangerous guards on the job.”

Other Center investigations have found that lax oversight has allowed many ex-municipal officers who were fired due to misconduct or brutality to easily find new jobs as armed guards. State regulators have also allowed ex-felons who have been barred from owning a gun to work as private guards, including those who have been convicted of domestic violence.

How the armed security industry is regulated varies from state to state, but according to the Center/CNN investigation, only 12 states require armed guards to file firearm discharge reports. If a company fails to report a shooting, there are seldom any consequences.

Of the states that require such reports, the problems mirror those associated with municipal police misconduct, including violations of civil rights, and excessive force and shooting cases that have sparked a national debate about police tactics in the wake of the events in Ferguson, Missouri. Armed guards have shot “at fleeing suspects, shoplifters and moving cars and into crowded shopping malls, apartment complexes and parking lots.”

Armed guards are typically required to receive only a small fraction of the training municipal police must undergo.

While it remains standard that every shooting by a municipal cop is automatically investigated, either by an independent agency or by the department’s internal affairs unit, in the vast majority of states, armed-guard shootings are not reported and rarely investigated. Only two states — Florida and Virginia — regularly investigate such shootings, according to the Center investigation.

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.

The Center investigation found more news reports of armed-guard shootings than discharge reports filed with the regulating agency in at least four states: Georgia, Louisiana, Texas and Wisconsin. Some state regulators reported that they have yet to collect their first firearm discharge report.

While armed-guard shootings are rarely investigated and reported, such shootings may occur, in part, because security guards are often “chronically undertrained,” according to a 2012 study from the University of Illinois College of Law and the University of California. Armed guards are typically required to receive only a small fraction of the training municipal police must undergo to work as beat cops.

It was concerns over training standards in the 1970s that initially prompted states to create regulating agencies that would require firearm discharge reports for private guards. Now, renewed concerns over lax oversight and training has again prompted bills in state legislatures aiming to close the regulatory gap between private security guards and their public counterparts.

In February, the Virginia legislature passed a bill that would increase the number of training hours private citizens, known as special conservators of the peace or “SCOPS,” must undergo from 40 to 130 hours. In March, California lawmakers heard testimony regarding oversight of the private security industry as part of an ongoing review by the joint oversight committees of the state’s regulating agency. In Arizona, a state senator is also pushing for more stringent background checks for armed guards, saying he is prepared to introduce legislation that would change a policy allowing those who’ve been banned from owning guns to become armed security guards.

Moreover, there are few accountability mechanisms outside the court system available to citizens who have been wronged during an encounter with a security guard. While the courts remain the primary vehicle for citizens to redress grievances, many laws that establish protections from municipal police don’t necessarily apply to the private sector.

Outsourcing Accountability

Like municipal policing, the private security sector is plagued with misconduct and cases of armed-guard fatal shootings and violence, including widespread racial profiling and routine violations of civil rights.

In 1995, a security guard at a Best Buy named Ricky Coleman, who was unlicensed, untrained and possessed a violent criminal record, strangled a fraud suspect to death as another guard restrained him.

More recently, residents of one Baltimore neighborhood filed a lawsuit for $25 million in 2012 against an Ohio-based security company, alleging its guards had routinely violated their civil rights by stopping and arresting residents illegally.

In one particularly noxious example, Colorado prisoner Angela Weishoff filed suit in January against an armed security guard who sexually assaulted her at a hospital only 15 minutes after she gave birth in 2012.

Security expert Bruce Schneier maintains that these types of “abuses of power, brutality, and illegal behavior are much more common among private security guards than real police.” Such a claim is hard to verify because many — likely most, even — incidents go unreported.

“Abuses of power, brutality and illegal behavior are much more common among private security guards than real police.”

But what exactly are one’s rights during an encounter with a private security guard? The answer, in many instances, is fuzzy, as the lawyers and private security experts contend that many laws designed to establish due process and other legal protections from municipal police don’t apply to private citizens serving as SCOPS or the private security industry.

According to National Lawyers Guild student leader Klaus, in most cases, a citizen cannot bring a suit against a private individual for a constitutional violation. He said a federal law known as Section 1983, which allows citizens to bring claims against the police through the 14th Amendment over civil rights violations (including misconduct, interrogation methods and evidence collection), simply does not apply to private security personnel.

A private individual can be held liable in some civil conspiracy cases, but Klaus says it is often difficult to prove a private individual and a cop worked together for the express purpose of depriving somebody of their constitutional rights.

“So if you’re walking by Dan Gilbert’s building and the security guards rough you up because they don’t like your politics, you can’t sue them in federal court for violating your First or Fourth Amendment rights,” Klaus said. “I think that’s what [business owners] want. It’s less constitutional liability. They see that as an impediment to their business.”

Those who feel they have been wronged by private guards may have no other option but to complain to the guards’ supervisors.

In the ongoing Campus Martius case, ACLU attorneys have brought just such a claim, arguing that under Section 1983, the private groups named as defendants are constitutionally liable for First Amendment violations because they “were performing public functions of managing a public park.” The case also argues the DPD conspired to deprive activists of their free speech rights. The crucial difference in the ongoing Campus Martius case and others like it may come down to the fact that Campus Martius Park is owned, ultimately, by the city of Detroit.

While a complaint regarding a municipal officer can be taken to an elected board of police commissioners, no such formal mechanism exists for the private security industry. Those who feel they have been wronged by private guards may have no other option but to complain to the guards’ supervisors.

“Unfortunately, businesses are not going to lend a very friendly ear to complaints about their private security forces,” the ACLU’s Steinberg told Truthout.

The Police Assessment Resource Center’s Private Policing & Consulting project provides assessments to private security firms about potentially problematic policies that could render firms liable, including policies that could lead to racial profiling and illicit arrests by security guards.

The Resource Center’s deputy director Matthew Barge told Truthout that it’s up to private security firms to come up with internal accountability and reporting mechanisms. He works with private firms to put those policies in place.

Barge says private security firms should follow the example of many municipal police departments across the United States that have taken steps to make their public accountability processes transparent and accessible to the public in recent years, especially the process by which citizens can make complaints.

“One thing that we tell agencies of all stripes is that the time to kind of think through what happens when a major incident may occur really is now,” Barge said. “You want to have something on the books, a standard operating procedure.”

But even if private security firms establish robust internal procedures, their accountability mechanisms remain fundamentally different from municipal departments operating with taxpayer dollars. Private firms are contracted and work on behalf of corporations, not taxpayers, and therefore 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. Another ongoing ACLU case in Massachusetts demonstrates the problem, as attorneys there sued the North Eastern Massachusetts Law Enforcement Council in June 2014 after the Council refused to answer their public records request for documents related to the organization’s SWAT team. The Council claims it is not subject to the Massachusetts public records law, despite receiving government grants and taxpayer money to buy military gear.

Another crucial difference is that the private sector has wider latitude to collect private information. According to security expert Schneier, the same kind of information the government is prohibited from collecting from citizens can be collected by the private sector — and then sold to the police.

Crisis Cops for Crisis Capitalists

Taken together, such little regulatory oversight and near impunity under the law constitutes an emerging paradigm of neoliberal policing under which the private sector buys influence and exacerbates the already violent and racist culture of public policing.

Even a private individual who simply volunteers for a municipal department can curry such favor to the detriment of public safety and accountability — as the recent shooting death of Eric Harris in Tulsa, Oklahoma, by Reserve Deputy Robert Bates makes clear. Bates’s donations to the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office have been widely received as a pay-to-play scheme resulting in another tragic loss of life. That Bates has been allowed to vacation in the Bahamas for a month following the shooting further exemplifies the prioritization of wealth and privilege over accountability in a neoliberal criminal legal framework.

In Detroit, some see Klein’s shock doctrine at work in the creation of a privatized surveillance apparatus operating to protect the business interests of mega-billionaires like Quicken Loans’s Gilbert. Klaus outlined the role Gilbert played in the racialized subprime mortgage lending scheme, which created the financial conditions for Detroit’s revenue problems that hit the city hard in 2008.

In two separate cases in 2011, awards of $3 million and $2 million were meted out by courts in Ohio and West Virginia to former Quicken Loans customers who judges ruled were victims of predatory lending.

In 2013, the Obama administration appointed Gilbert chairman of the Detroit Blight Removal Task Force. He pledged to assist the city in tearing down blighted properties — essentially pledging to clean up a mess that his company had, in part, created.

MFI-Miami reviewed Detroit mortgage filings and found that 70.6 percent of 75 homes listing Quicken Loans as the mortgage holder went into foreclosure within 24 to 36 months of being sold on the secondary housing market.

Now, Gilbert is being rewarded for his exploits with private security contracts and an ever-expanding private-public surveillance system designed to protect and ensure his plans for Detroit’s redevelopment — and no end appears to be in sight.

“In Detroit, it’s justice and safety for those that can afford it,” Klaus said.

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