Private Police Coming to a Neighborhood Near You! Why Private Police May Be an Important Element of Future Law Enforcement

Modern policing is a very challenging endeavor. It requires a large degree of foresight, nimbleness, adaptability, risk taking, and commitment. In addition to the practical challenges involved in reducing crime and making communities safe, law enforcement has been challenged with sharp reductions in budgets, and, thus, resources. For instance, the number of sworn police officers in California fell from 81,286 in 2008 to 77,584 in 2011, a decline of roughly 5 percent, which translates to a 7 percent decline in the number of officers per 10,000 residents.1 To deal with the ongoing fiscal pressure, leaders have made some tough choices, and some departments have been forced to slash services, eliminate specialty units, and focus only on basic core functions and the most violent crimes. In Sacramento, California, police officers no longer respond to burglaries, misdemeanors, and minor traffic accidents. The traffic enforcement unit has been disbanded. Some detectives have been sent back to the streets. The department conducts only follow-up investigations on the most serious crimes, like homicide and sexual assault.2 Sadly, Sacramento is not unique.

In 2014, Camden, New Jersey, disbanded its entire police force as rising crime and a lack of funds led the city to transfer law enforcement duties to the county. Officials in Camden said that generous union contracts and declining aid from the state made it financially impossible to keep enough officers on the street.3 Similarly, in 2011, Millbrae, California, dissolved its police force and contracted with the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Department in an effort to save $1.1 million per year, and two other cities in that county, San Carlos and Half Moon Bay, have also dissolved their forces to contract with the sheriff’s department.4 These are not isolated instances—local California governments continue to struggle with ongoing financial issues, as evidenced by the high-profile bankruptcies of Vallejo, San Bernardino, and Stockton. Fiscal constraints, high pension costs, and changing public opinion have made it much easier for local leaders to cut services, including police forces. In the future, law enforcement leaders must plan ways to provide quality service with fewer resources to their communities.

How Are Departments Coping?

Technology and new crime strategies have allowed agencies to be more efficient and effective with their resources. An example of this is online reporting. In Sacramento, citizens filed more than 18,256 online reports in 2012.5 The online reporting program has saved thousands of labor hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars, while also allowing officers to focus on proactive patrol and smart policing strategies.

However, online reporting is impersonal and relatively unresponsive compared to in-person reporting, and there is little to no data on whether it helps reduce crime rates. During a recent round of community meetings in Sacramento, residents expressed a clear preference for face-to-face interactions between the police and victims of crimes. Many communities complain they have not seen the money saved by such a program reinvested back into the community through increased police presence or interaction.

The online reporting solution has not appeared to make much of a difference in Sacramento, which remains in the top 10 of California cities for violent and property crimes.6 Furthermore, a recent survey of Sacramento residents showed that their number one concern was crime. When asked if their neighborhoods had gotten better, stayed the same, or gotten worse, 33.3 percent thought their neighborhoods had gotten better or much better, 39.4 percent thought they stayed the same, and 26.6 percent thought their neighborhood was “somewhat worse” or “much worse.” The fact that about two-thirds of Sacramento residents felt their neighborhoods had either stayed the same or gotten worse in recent years reflects both a serious concern and an opportunity for change.7

As police leaders must continue to create new strategies on how to best close the gaps between budgets and essential services, technology and evidence-based policing strategies will be part of the answer. However, as demonstrated by Sacramento’s experience with online reporting, those strategies cannot solve every issue. Another area left largely unexplored to date are the ways that the privatization of policing might have a significant and beneficial impact on policing in the future.

Rising Feelings of Vulnerability

A 2013 poll by Gallup revealed that 64 percent of U.S. citizens believe crime is getting worse. This number has fluctuated over the past decade or so, from a low of 53 percent in 2004 to a high of 74 percent in 2009.8 That statistic is concerning, when one considers that the crime rate fell significantly over the same period of time. In many communities throughout the United States, violent crime fell by more than 50 percent.9 So what is at work here? Why do people feel that crime is going up, when the facts show it is going down?

One factor may be the well-publicized and large-scale incidents such as school shootings; the Boston Marathon bombing; and the Aurora, Colorado, shooting have contributed to a perception that people are less safe—even as crime continues to fall. The terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, intensified those perceptions, as evidenced by the resulting federal legislation permitting airline pilots to carry guns aboard flights as the last line of defense against hijackings.10 The 2012 shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary created a renewed demand for the safety of school children In the United States, and schoolteachers in Israel and Thailand now carry concealed handguns on the job. In fact, in areas where the threat is considered the greatest, teachers have been given guns for free.11 In the United States, people are beginning to think that the changes made in the wake of the 1999 Columbine shooting did not go far enough. For example, in Colorado, Briggsdale School District allows trained teachers to be armed at school, and, in 2014, elected officials in Ohio approved a bill that would allow school boards to designate some school employees to carry concealed firearms.12 The feeling that these defense strategies are needed reflects the growing sense of fear among the public.

Dwindling Police Department Resources

As a result of the reductions in police personnel, many local law enforcement agencies are struggling to provide basic service to their communities. According to New York Times columnist Kate Zernike, as budgets shrink, it is no longer possible for each community to offer a full buffet of government services.13 This statement is bolstered by the fact that, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, law enforcement will grow by a paltry 41,400 jobs or approximately 5 percent of the 780,000 now employed.14 When paired with the increased feelings of vulnerability, the inability of the police to provide quality service to communities has caused some neighborhoods to seek out alternatives.

“You have to walk around in your house with a gun to feel safe,” said Oakland, California, resident Alaska Tarvins, who went on to say, “We don’t have a choice. Either die or hire some security ourselves, because we can’t depend on the police department.”15 That may seem extreme, but Tarvins’s statement does illustrate the attitude and frustration of some community members—and it seems the number of those feeling that way is growing. In 2014, Detroit, Michigan, Police Chief James Craig said, “There’s a number of CPL (concealed pistol license) holders running around the city of Detroit. I think it acts as a deterrent. Good Americans with CPLs translates to crime reduction.”16 Despite this perspective, an armed citizenry as an alternative to the police is not viable; instead, what may be a more realistic option is to engage the private sector to protect our communities.

Alternatives to Traditional Municipal Policing

Budget reductions are forcing cities to consider more efficient alternatives to standard police services. There is a billion dollar industry poised to be that alternative. Private security companies no longer consist of the high school dropouts or the people who could not make it through the police academy. Rather, their employees are educated, professional, and motivated workers who provide superior customer service. The United Kingdom has already begun to use private police to supplement their law enforcement services, and the concept of private companies taking on some traditional police roles is catching on in the region.

West Midlands, England, Chief Constable, Chris Sims, says his force is a good testing ground for fundamental change; by expanding the role of private police, Sims saves his agency £126 million (approximately 2.3 million USD) each year.17 Other UK forces—Thames Valley, West Mercia, Warwickshire, Staffordshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire, and Hampshire—have outsourced 30 custody suites and 600 cells to G4S, a private policing organization.18

G4S is one of the biggest employers in the world, with 675,000 employees in Europe, Africa, and the United States. They provided security for the 2012 Olympic Games in London and have predicted that, within five years, private companies will be running large parts of police services in the United Kingdom. During an interview, G4S executive David Taylor Smith said, “Our view was, look, we would never try to take away core policing functions from the police, but for a number of years it has been absolutely clear to us—and to others—the configuration of the police in the UK is just simply not as effective and as efficient as it could be.” Smith went on to say that the main drivers of private sector involvement in policing were “budgetary pressure and political will.”19

A similar scenario is happening in the United States. Police department budgets have been slashed, thus eliminating services, while simultaneously, some figures in politics and the media have vilified police and other public employees’ salaries and pensions. In contrast to the slowed growth rate of law enforcement employment, by 2022, the security industry is poised to grow by 130,200 jobs (12 percent).20 The circumstances are ripe for private security providers to be considered a more effective and affordable public safety solution.

Many communities have already begun to contract with private security to supplement local law enforcement. Private sector companies are cheaper and focused more on customer service. In Oakland, California, several neighborhoods have hired private security to patrol their neighborhoods in response to rising crime rates and reductions in police staffing. More than 600 Oakland households pay $20 a month for unarmed patrols in clearly marked cars to run 12 hours a day, Monday through Saturday.21 In Beverly Hills, California, Evidence Based Inc., a private security firm, was approved to provide armed safety personnel to protect Beverly Hills Public Schools in January 2014 at a cost of $1.4 million for 18 months of service. The Beverly Hills Police Department had provided School Resource Officers to the city’s schools in the past, but the department had ended the program a few years prior due to staffing shortages that necessitated the reassignment of the school officers to patrol beats.22

Another example of private security fulfilling core functions of law enforcement is the development of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs). A BID is a defined area in which businesses pay an additional “tax” to pay for projects within the district’s boundary. In many urban BIDs, one of the priorities funded by the fees is additional security services. BIDs have existed since the early 1980s, although they went relatively unnoticed until recently. Now, there are more than 1,000 in the United States A 2009 RAND Corporation study of BIDs in Los Angeles, California, found that neighborhoods whose BIDs contracted for added security had significantly less crime than those without the added security. According to the lead researcher, “These districts make a place, not such an attractive place for crimes of opportunities, such as robbery.”23 One of the largest BIDs in the United States, the Times Square Alliance, located in the heart of New York City, has seen similar results. The Times Square Alliance provides increased public safety through unarmed, fully trained security officers; the BID even offers canine patrols and works closely with the New York Police Department (NYPD).24

Much like BIDs, private security guards are not a new concept—they have spent decades serving as the eyes and ears of private property owners. Over time, these companies have become more professional and diverse in the services that they provide, and this evolution has caught many police organizations off guard. In an era where public policing does not have the funding necessary to provide meaningful security and private security organizations are willing to provide services for less, what does that mean for law enforcement?

What Does the Future Hold?

A successful public police organization of the future will either partner with private security or offer an alternative that can compete with the private sector. One potential alternative is the employment of non-sworn civilian personnel to respond to low-priority matters traditionally assigned to police officers. For example, the Las Vegas, Nevada, Metropolitan Police Department; the Indianapolis, Indiana, Metropolitan Police Department; and the Orange County, Florida, Sheriff’s Office all hire civilians to respond to some calls. Essentially, civilians handle “cold” reports, dispatching duties, telephone reporting, and daytime patrols, thus freeing sworn officers to handle higher priority calls. This type of program can also save a department money. In Las Vegas, for example, the starting salary for a sworn officer is $54,000, while the starting salary for a civilian responder is $32,000.25 In Denver, Colorado, Chief Robert White plans to hire civilian staff to fill 30 positions currently held by officers, which will save the agency a projected $600,000 annually.26

For some agencies, it may make more sense to partner with private security companies to pool resources. For example, camera technologies to aid in surveillance for public safety have advanced to a level where suspects may be able to be identified in almost any environment. However, most cities do not have the funds to invest in the infrastructure needed to support a robust camera system, much less the money to purchase the technology. In addition, police departments often do not have the personnel to monitor the systems. In those types of situations, partnerships with private firms or working with BIDs may provide mutually beneficial solutions.

The founder of Rock Ventures and Quicken Loans, Dan Gilbert, has invested more than a billion dollars to revitalize downtown Detroit, Michigan, a multimillion dollar security control room has been built to monitor his properties. The security control monitors more than 300 cameras in metropolitan Detroit. Operators can zoom in on individuals and record images. If an incident occurs, the private system works with the Detroit Police Department to identify suspects and solve crimes. Detroit’s police chief, James Craig, thinks it is a win-win for the city. “I’m hopeful that sometime in the very [near] future that the Detroit Police Department can replicate and even expand beyond the technology being used in Rock Ventures,” Craig said. “Right now, as it stands, we are invited in and use their center for major events in the downtown area, and it’s proved to be very effective.”27


The trend of diminished budgets and limited resources for law enforcement agencies is likely to continue. Law enforcement leaders must recognize the world of law enforcement is changing and then look for ways to change with it so that they can successfully provide public safety moving forward. Considering strategic partnerships with private security, as well as changes in the composition of their own staffs may be the right solution for many police departments. ♦

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning & action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

This journal article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it—creating, constraining, and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and journal article are those of the author, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST).

© Copyright 2014
California Commission on Peace Officer Standards and Training

1Phillip Reese, “Police Agencies Losing Officers,” The Modesto Bee, March 16, 2013, (accessed June 19, 2015).

2 Erica Goode, “Crime Increases in Sacramento after Deep Cuts to Police Force,” The New York Times, November 3, 2012, (accessed June 19, 2015).

3Kate Zernike, “To Fight Crime, A Poor City Will Trade in Its Police,” The New York Times, September 28, 2012, (accessed June 19, 2015).

4Henry K. Lee, “Millbrae Votes to Dissolve Police, Turn to Sheriff,” SFGate, November 17, 2011, (accessed February 11, 2014).

5] Sacramento, California, Police Department, 2012 Annual Report, 15, (accessed February 11, 2014).

6Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Crime in the United States 2012, California: Offenses Known to Law Enforcement, table 8, (accessed February 10, 2015).

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9FBI, Crime in the United States 2012, California: Offenses Known to Law Enforcement.

10Mike Dorning, “House Clears Armed Pilots for Boarding,” Chicago Tribune, July 11, 2002, (accessed March 22, 2013).

11Kyle Rogers, “Arming Teachers Worked for Israel and Thailand,”, December 16, 2012, (accessed March 22, 2013).

12“Guns in School: Colorado District Approves Armed Teachers,” The Inquisitr News, November 18, 2013, (accessed January 29, 2014); German Lopez, “Ohio House Moves to Allow Armed Teachers in Schools,” CityBeat, January 29, 2014, (accessed January 29, 2014).

13Zernike, “To Fight Crime, A Poor City Will Trade in Its Police.”

14U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Quick Facts: Police and Detectives,” January 8, 2014, (accessed February 10, 2014).

15“Oakland Neighbors Policing Their Own Streets as They Lose Faith in Cops,” CBS SF Bay Area, February 26, 2013, (accessed March 22, 2013).

16Ashley Woods, “Police Chief James Craig Says What Detroit Needs Is More Guns,” The Huffington Post, updated January 23, 2014, (accessed June 23, 2014).

17Matthew Taylor and Alan Travis, “G4S Chief Predicts Mass Police Privatization,” The Guardian, June 20, 2012, (accessed March 25, 2013).



20U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, “Quick Facts: Police and Detectives.”

21Richard Gonzales, “With Robberies Up, Oakland Residents Turn to Private Cops,” NPR, November 15, 2013, (accessed June 26, 2015).

22Jordan Graham, “Irvine Firm Hired to Protect Beverly Hills Schools,” The Orange County Register, December 27, 2013, (accessed February 9, 2014).

23Cara Mia DiMassa and Richard Winton, “L.A.’s Business Improvement Districts Help Reduce Crime, Study Finds,” Los Angeles Times, February 20, 2009, (accessed February 11, 2014).

24Times Square Alliance, “Security & Sanitation,” (accessed February 11, 2014).

25Alan Gomez, “Civilians Help with Minor Police Duties,” USA Today, March 31, 2008, (accessed November 12, 2013).

26Tom McGhee, “Denver Will Replace Some Police with Civilians,” The Denver Post, November 20, 2012, (accessed June 26, 2015).

27“Private Security Efforts Improve Safety in Downtown Business District,” Detroit 2020, October 7, 2013, (accessed February 12, 2014).

Please cite as

David Risley, “Private Police Coming to a Neighborhood Near You! Why Private Police May Be an Important Element of Future Law Enforcement,” The Police Chief 82 (July 2015): web only.