Could privatizing police services resolve many current issues with public law enforcement?
As you go about your daily life, I’m sure you’ve seen two different kinds of people wearing a badge. The first is the public law enforcement officer we’re all familiar with. Citizens pay taxes to the government in order to fund this officer’s activity, and we’re told that his department exits to protect and serve the community. The other is a private security guard. His activity is funded by the private entity that desires his services, and his department exists to protect and serve the interests of that private entity.
While government regulations carefully distinguish between the roles and responsibilities of public law enforcement officials and private security professionals, they share a common motivation for their activities that makes them exactly the same in principle. That is that all police and/or security services, public or private, exist to protect the interests of their clients. In other words, they answer to the people who pay them, and they are held accountable only in as much as they fail to serve those interests.
In the case of private security this should be very obvious. Consider any common business where you’re likely to see private security guards. For example, most privately-owned shopping malls employee such services.
Shopping malls employee private security because they have a vested interest in ensuring that merchandise is not stolen from their clients. They also have need to ensure that their customers feel safe and secure as they go about their shopping. However, shopping malls also have a vested interest in holding their security staff accountable.
If security guards are routinely rude and disrespectful to patrons of the mall, those patrons are unlikely to continue shopping there, and the mall will cease to be profitable. Further, if the rules that the mall asks its security staff to enforce are too restrictive and displeasing to patrons of the mall, patrons are again unlikely to keep shopping there. The mall will again cease to be profitable, and thus the interests of the malls patrons are necessarily intertwined with the mall’s interests.
For this reason, every private security professional understands that his primary objective is to ensure that his client, in our example the shopping mall, has his interests protected. If the security professional fails in this mission, his client will quickly dismiss him in favor of a different security professional or firm that can do a better of job of protecting his interests.
But what about public law enforcement?
Undoubtedly, there are those in the community who donate their private funds to police causes, but at the end of the day, citizens are coerced into paying taxes, which are then allocated to the various branches of government by the state, including law enforcement agencies. If citizens are displeased with the police services they are receiving, they can write their elected officials and express this, or call the law enforcement agency directly and file a complaint, but they cannot dismiss public law enforcement officials for dereliction of duty as they could private security professionals that they were employing directly. The only entity that can dismiss public police officers is the state itself.
For this reason, the public police officer, just like his private security counterpart, realizes that he has an obligation to protect the interests of his client. However, his client’s interests are unique in that the state is never under threat of losing profitability because of displeased patrons. Citizens will be forced to pay their taxes whether they want to or not.
Consider then the practical consequences, when law enforcement fail in their responsibility to protect and serve the community.
In 1981, the court case Warren vs. District of Columbia was brought before the District of Columbia Court of Appeals. This case involved three women who had horrific crimes committed against them by men who forcibly broke into the building in which they lived. While two of the appellants had contacted the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department when the break-in began, dispatch and patrol officers failed to follow multiple department procedures. Despite arriving at the scene, officers did not investigate beyond knocking on the door, and then departing when there was no answer. As a result, a crime that could have been stopped within minutes of its beginning became a series of horrific crimes that lasted 14 hours.
The women who had endured these crimes sued the District of Columbia on the basis that Metro P.D. had failed to follow its own procedures, and in so doing, failed in its stated mission to protect the community from crime. However, the court ruled against the appellants stating,
“A publicly maintained police force constitutes a basic governmental service provided to benefit the community at large by promoting public peace, safety and good order. The extent and quality of police protection afforded to the community necessarily depends upon the availability of public resources and upon legislative or administrative determinations concerning allocation of those resources…” (Warren v. District of Columbia, 1981).
The court went on to say,
“At any given time, publicly furnished police protection may accrue to the personal benefit of individual citizens, but at all times the needs and interests of the community at large predominate. Private resources and needs have little direct effect upon the nature of police services provided to the public. Accordingly, courts have without exception concluded that when a municipality or other governmental entity undertakes to furnish police services, it assumes a duty only to the public at large and not to individual members of the community” (Warren v. District of Columbia, 1981).
In other words, the court was very clear that police do not exist to protect individuals. They exist to protect the state. Granted, the state attempts to hide this fact by broadcasting the idea that police exist to protect “the community” but the community is nothing more than a collection of individuals. It may be the case that the state’s interests and individual interests happen to align in many circumstances, but the fact that individuals have their interests protected by police in some circumstances is nothing more that a fortunate side effect. Whether the police officers themselves realize it or not, they are always acting in the state’s interests and will do so in any case where the state’s interests conflict with individual interests.
This is not the fault of police officers themselves, but of the incentive structures that are created by coercive taxation. There is no reason that public law enforcement services could not continue to exist as private entities. Whether individually, or as members of a neighborhood, private entities could employ private police firms to protect their own interests, just as many businesses do every day. In a free market, this would lead to competition among private police firms in which only those firms that provided the highest quality service for the lowest possible price would survive. If at any point, you were displeased with the police services being provided, you could fire your current firm, in favor of another, better quality one.
At this point, it is important to be absolutely clear that police officers themselves are not the enemy. It is undoubtedly true that many brave men and women have chosen to become police officers out of a genuine desire to protect their communities from harm. It would be wrong to dismiss the fact that police officers can and often do protect innocent people from harm.
However, when police brutality and other misconduct do occur, it is symptomatic of the incentive structures that exist within all tax-funded, state services. Because public police services answer to the state and not directly to the people, they will never have the same incentives regarding public perception and satisfaction that private security services do. Further, the state always has the incentive to use the police to further its own interests, even when that means ordering them to violate the rights of its citizens.
In summary then, all police and/or security services, public or private, exist to further the interests of their clients. As such, publicly funded police services will always serve the interests of the state, not individuals within their community. It will be impossible to quell the corruption that results from these incentive structures except via a free market solution, the complete privatization of police and security services.
And that is My 2 Cents. Take it for what it’s worth.
This article is available in video format here:
Warren v. District of Columbia, 444 A.2d 1 (DC Court of Appeals 1981). Retrieved from https://law.justia.com/cases/district-of-columbia/court-of-appeals/1981/79-6-3.html
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