While the public police provide us with familiar symbols of government authority, they were not always the primary guarantors of security and order. Before public police departments became firmly established in American cities during the nineteenth century, individuals relied on the loosely organized constable-watch system, and also turned to the services of private guards and detectives. Yet even after the public police became widespread, the private assumption of policing tasks did not disappear. Indeed, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, private police achieved great notoriety because of their employment by coal, steel, and other industrial interests in quelling labor disputes. Their often violent tactics prompted congressional investigations, first in 1892, and then once again in 1936. While these inquiries resulted in public rebuke, the private police did not disappear so much as they reduced or altered their involvement in labor unrest.
Despite this early infamy, private police today are employed in large numbers and play an important role in crime control. There are approximately three times the number of private security guards as there are public police, and reliable estimates suggest that the money spent on private policing is at least twice that spent on public police budgets. While some of the empirical uncertainty can be attributed to the absence of reliable data, another source of ambiguity can be traced to disagreement about the term’s definition. While some use the term ‘‘private police’’ to refer to for-profit companies offering crime prevention and order-maintenance services, others also include volunteer neighborhood patrols and even private military companies.
Even if the focus remains on for-profit services, many legal, social, and political questions remain unresolved. While the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the federal Constitution provide individuals with certain protections in their encounters with the public police, these protections generally do not apply to the private police. The state action doctrine of constitutional law limits the application of constitutional rights to actions of government and not to those of private actors. The main legal constraints on private police, then, arise from contract, property, and tort law, as well as the Criminal Laws that apply to all persons. State regulations of private police vary widely, and most focus on licensing requirements of prospective employees.
At the same time, private police are increasingly relied upon to perform tasks often identical to those of public police. Private police guard private property, and many investigate crimes and, in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, engage in counterterrorist policing at the behest of their employers. Yet the appropriate role of private police in a democratic society remains controversial. Some defend their use as a private supplement to perceived inadequacies in the public provision of crime control or simply as a cheaper alternative. Others, however, see the use of force in private hands, without the direct oversight of public accountability, as a fundamental challenge to the traditional monopoly over the legitimate use of force in the modern nation-state.
ELIZABETH E. JOH
References and Further Reading
- Cunningham, William C. et al. Private Security Trends, 1970 to 2000: The Hallcrest Report, 1990.
- Joh, Elizabeth E., The Paradox of Private Policing, Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 95 (2004): 49.
- Shearing, Clifford D. ‘‘The Relation Between Public and Private Policing.’’ In Modern Policing 51, Michael Tonry and Norval Morris, eds., 1992.
- Shearing, Clifford D., and Phillip C. Stenning. Private Security and Private Justice: The Challenge of the 80s: A Review of the Policing Issues. 1982.
- Sklansky, David, The Private Police, UCLA Law Review 46 (1999): 1165.