Bruce Schneier: Privatizing the Police Puts Us at Greater Risk

Abuses of power and brutality are likelier among private security guards

By Bruce Schneier
Minneapolis Star Tribune
February 27, 2007

In Raleigh, N.C., employees of Capitol Special Police patrol apartment buildings, a bowling alley and nightclubs, stopping suspicious people, searching their cars and making arrests.

Sounds like a good thing, but Capitol Special Police isn't a police force at all -- it's a for-profit security company hired by private property owners.

This isn't unique. Private security guards outnumber real police more than 5-1, and increasingly act like them.

They wear uniforms, carry weapons and drive lighted patrol cars on private properties like banks and apartment complexes and in public areas like bus stations and national monuments. Sometimes they operate as ordinary citizens and can only make citizen's arrests, but in more and more states they're being granted official police powers.

This trend should greatly concern citizens. Law enforcement should be a government function, and privatizing it puts us all at risk.

Most obviously, there's the problem of agenda. Public police forces are charged with protecting the citizens of the cities and towns over which they have jurisdiction. Of course, there are instances of policemen overstepping their bounds, but these are exceptions, and the police officers and departments are ultimately responsible to the public.

Private police officers are different. They don't work for us; they work for corporations. They're focused on the priorities of their employers or the companies that hire them. They're less concerned with due process, public safety and civil rights.

Also, many of the laws that protect us from police abuse do not apply to the private sector. Constitutional safeguards that regulate police conduct, interrogation and evidence collection do not apply to private individuals. Information that is illegal for the government to collect about you can be collected by commercial data brokers, then purchased by the police.

We've all seen policemen "reading people their rights" on television cop shows. If you're detained by a private security guard, you don't have nearly as many rights.

For example, a federal law known as Section 1983 allows you to sue for civil rights violations by the police but not by private citizens. The Freedom of Information Act allows us to learn what government law enforcement is doing, but the law doesn't apply to private individuals and companies. In fact, most of your civil right protections apply only to real police.

Training and regulation is another problem. Private security guards often receive minimal training, if any. They don't graduate from police academies. And while some states regulate these guard companies, others have no regulations at all: anyone can put on a uniform and play policeman. Abuses of power, brutality, and illegal behavior are much more common among private security guards than real police.

A horrific example of this happened in South Carolina in 1995. Ricky Coleman, an unlicensed and untrained Best Buy security guard with a violent criminal record, choked a fraud suspect to death while another security guard held him down.

This trend is larger than police. More and more of our nation's prisons are being run by for-profit corporations. The IRS has started outsourcing some back-tax collection to debt-collection companies that will take a percentage of the money recovered as their fee. And there are about 20,000 private police and military personnel in Iraq, working for the Defense Department.

Throughout most of history, specific people were charged by those in power to keep the peace, collect taxes and wage wars. Corruption and incompetence were the norm, and justice was scarce. It is for this very reason that, since the 1600s, European governments have been built around a professional civil service to both enforce the laws and protect rights.

Private security guards turn this bedrock principle of modern government on its head. Whether it's FedEx policemen in Tennessee who can request search warrants and make arrests; a privately funded surveillance helicopter in Jackson, Miss., that can bypass constitutional restrictions on aerial spying; or employees of Capitol Special Police in North Carolina who are lobbying to expand their jurisdiction beyond the specific properties they protect -- privately funded policemen are not protecting us or working in our best interests.

earlier essay: Why Smart Cops Do Dumb Things
later essay: Is Penetration Testing Worth It?
categories: Business of Security
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Photo of Bruce Schneier by Per Ervland.

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