The Private Arm of the Law

Officer Matt Saylors of the private security firm Capitol Special Police looks into a car at Raleigh's Black Tie nightclub.
Officer Matt Saylors of the private security firm Capitol Special Police looks into a car at Raleigh's Black Tie nightclub. (Photos By Amy Goldstein -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 2, 2007

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.

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