Los Angeles, CA (TFC) – In the wake of every high profile killing or use of excessive force by the police, there is a very loud and vocal call for police reform. This is very apparent on social media where many of the posts on my Facebook newsfeed are related to police misconduct. While the outrage about police misconduct is very apparent, the solution for ending this problem is not so clear. Over the years, I have heard many possible solutions for resolving this problem. One proposal that has gained modest support is the privatization of the police force.
The main idea behind privatized police is to open up policing powers to private security firms. These firms would compete to bid for contracts to act as the police force for a jurisdiction, which effectively removes the monopoly on force that the police currently enjoy. Proponents of this solution would argue that this competition could bring about many benefits. First, it would create a financial incentive for private police forces to behave in a less heavy-handed manner. If a jurisdiction was unhappy with the conduct of the police firm, they could simply refuse to renew their contract. Word of this would also get around and other jurisdictions would likely follow suit. This system could also prove to be more cost effective for local governments as a private firm would have greater incentive to reduce costs. Proponents of this system would point out some success stories(although this story has been disputed) as proof that this could work.
I, however, remain unconvinced about the merits of a privatized policing system over the long-run. The first problem is that the premise of the privatized police model is that the market for police services is competitive. Although this may be true for the time being, this assumption is unlikely to hold in the future. As with any market, larger firms have an advantage, creating incentives to gain a larger share of the market through expansion and the acquisition of competitors. This would also apply to private police firms who would likely try to buy out smaller firms. The problem is that this can create an oligopoly, or even worse a monopoly, in the police services market. This is seriously problematic because the restoration of an oligopoly or a monopoly on police force would simply revert the state of police affairs back to the status quo.
Privatized police forces also raise other relevant concerns, the main one being accountability and transparency. Currently, private police forces are not subject to the accountability requirements that state police forces are. As a result, they are under no legal obligation to publish police statistics, that could potentially be used to uncover police incompetence or racial profiling. This problem could theoretically be solved by extending current legislation to private police firms. However, private policing firms would have the ability to lobby and could use this power to hinder legislative attempts to increase accountability requirements.
Lastly, police misconduct by privatized police forces is also likely to go unpunished. If a law enforcement officer is suspected of misconduct, then there are few options for actually punishing them. The police firm that hires them would have the primary responsibility of disciplining and reporting their indiscretions. However, there is no guarantee that these officers would actually face any sort of reprimand given the fact that the current model of law enforcement certainly does not. Law enforcement has a culture of protecting their own, which is not conducive to police accountability nor the rule of law. There is little reason to believe that privatized police forces would operate any differently in that regard.
It should be clear that the privatization of the police force is unlikely to produce a radically different outcome than the status quo over the long-run. In some ways, it could potentially make the state of police affairs worse, as it would be difficult to legislate or enforce accountability measures on private police officers. As a result, I believe that other options for police reform need to be explored. I personally believe that officers should be held accountable for their actions and that special prosecutors should be hired to try cases of police misconduct. This would help to eliminate the conflict of interest that local prosecutor offices and state attorneys face when prosecuting the very police officers that they have to work closely with in order to do their jobs. Lastly, I believe that a disarmed police force is also a promising prospect. Under this system, there would be two-tiers of officers in the police force. One tier would be comprised of disarmed officers who patrol the streets and the other tier would consist of armed, rapid-response police who are only deployed in response to more menacing threats. This model has worked well in many European countries, who have both effective policing services and much lower incidences of police brutality than the US.