Kiss those Miranda rights good-bye

Published September 24, 1998 7:00PM (EDT)

The private guards who patrol San Francisco's public housing projects were supposed to help the police. Hired last year under a $1 million contract, armed guards from the security firm Personal Protective Services were charged with maintaining order, preventing trespassers and serving as the eyes and ears of the police in several of the city's most dangerous housing projects. According to the Housing Authority, the guards have fulfilled their mission well, with certain crimes dropping by as much as 60 percent in some communities.The Authority has renewed the firm's contracts through 2000.

But less than a year into the contract, the police have emerged as PPS's most vocal critics, accusing the firm of hiring convicted criminals, using excessive force against residents and supplying uniforms too similar to the cops' traditional blue. "These guys are using tactics I wouldn't allow my people to use," San Francisco Police Capt. George Stasko told the San Francisco Chronicle in July. "They are out there doing what they shouldn't be doing." PPS counters the criticism by pointing to the reductions in crime, suggesting that perhaps the police are primarily concerned with protecting their turf -- and their paychecks. "I know that there is a flavor of that involved in the whole thing," comments PPS Vice President Larry Treat.

Residents are divided. While some applaud the private security force's vigilance, others criticize it for excessive force and potential violations. of civil rights. PPS, originally touted as the solution to the projects' crime problem, is now the target of a federal civil rights probe, a criminal investigation, a licensing review by the state's security oversight bureau and several civil lawsuits seeking damages for beatings, threats and other alleged brutal tactics. While PPS has publicly denied most of the charges, the sheer depth of the firm's legal quagmire indicates that bringing private security into the public sector, in this case at least, may be causing more problems than it solves.

While most cities still rely on public police for public housing security, San Francisco's experiment -- and subsequent struggles -- can tell us much about the future of policing in the United States. As privatization sweeps law enforcement, with security guards assuming many of the duties once considered the exclusive property of the police, the line between public and private police is growing increasingly thin -- and the tensions between them are rising. While security guards still ornament the entrances to supermarkets and office buildings, they have also begun to patrol train stations, airports, government buildings, jails and prisons, even entire communities.

The swift growth of semi-private "business improvement districts" in this decade has helped to place thousands of security guards into public spaces and onto the downtown streets of most major cities. While few security guards possess arrest powers, some now have the right to make trespass arrests, issue traffic citations or access confidential information. Last spring, for instance, the federal government shut down its Office of Personnel Management, which conducted background checks on federal employees, and transformed the organization into a private company. The new firm, U.S. Investigations Services Inc., performs the same duties as its predecessor and receives the same access to criminal and government files.

Already, according to conservative estimates, private security employees in the United States outnumber public police by a margin of 3-1, and the federal government is one of the industry's largest employers. In 1996, Americans spent upwards of $90 billion on private security -- compared to $40 billion for local, state and federal law enforcement combined. With the security industry -- like many other law-and-order businesses -- expected to grow at a clip of 10 percent a year for at least the next decade, the scope and character of law enforcement will be increasingly determined not by public decisionmakers but by the corporations and private citizens who run, staff and hire private security firms.

Bill Cunningham, author of the Hallcrest Report, a 1990 survey of the security industry, sees the trend as virtually unstoppable. "Upwards of 80 percent [of police work] is non-crime, non-emergency," he explained in an interview. "You'd be amazed. There's virtually nothing that the security field can't do if the ground rules and the specifications are laid out."

The problem is that the ground rules are far from clear. While private security has penetrated the public realm, the opposite has yet to happen. For all of its astounding growth and billions in cash flow, the security industry remains virtually unregulated. Private security officers are subject to none of the constraints, like Miranda warnings and Fourth Amendment search and seizure proscriptions, that are designed to protect individual civil rights in the public sphere. Some security advocates view this as an advantage, arguing that security guards can detain and question suspicious-looking characters more effectively than can the public police.

"Private security is not held by the penal code, thus we don't need to follow police guidelines," Stanley Teets explained in an interview last January. Teets owns the currently beleaguered PPS, under fire for its activities in the San Francisco housing projects. "We can approach you and ask you why you're there. We can detain you in order to determine if you have a reason to be there. Police cannot do that."

Civil rights advocates point out that this supposed "advantage" contains enormous potential for abuse. "What they claim is their virtue is also the dilemma for communities that are the subjects of that kind of behavior," says Gen Fugioka, a staff attorney at the Asian Law Caucus in San Francisco, which has worked with alleged victims of PPS's zealousness. "We're really talking about essentially an unregulated industry with people carrying sidearms and nightsticks enforcing their version of justice. It's obviously a problem."

Fugioka says that he has heard complaints from residents ranging from beatings to lengthy, unnecessary detainments. But even these residents, he adds, have mixed feelings about PPS. "They feel torn by the dilemma. They want safety, they want security. But the cost they're having to pay is having to sacrifice some of their rights."

Perhaps the most immediate concern of security industry critics is the lack of screening and training of would-be guards, especially the 5 to 10 percent who carry guns. Yulonda Sullivan learned about this problem firsthand, when a uniformed security guard patrolling a Seattle pier shot and killed her husband last year. At first, Sullivan thought that the man, who wore a badge and carried a gun, was a police officer. He turned out to be a $7-an-hour security guard carrying a 9mm handgun on his first day on the job. He had no security license and had received no training from his employer, Risk Management.

While fatal cases like Sullivan's husband are relatively rare in the industry, lapses in screening and training remain one of the most intractable problems of private security. "Allegations of poor personnel selection practices, little or no training, inadequate supervision, excessive turnover, abuses of authority, and increasing false alarms have surrounded the field of private security for at least two decades," Cunningham wrote in the Hallcrest Report. "Despite the expressed and obvious need, standards or controls for this industry have been slow to develop."

In San Francisco, a police investigation uncovered three PPS guards with past criminal convictions on firearms and misdemeanor battery charges. After the police tried to disarm the guards, the California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services ruled that the guards could continue to carry their weapons since they had completed a required training course, according to the Chronicle. The Bureau is currently conducting a licensing review of PPS as a whole, based on "complaints filed by the police department," says Bureau spokesman Jay Van Rein.

Police often cite the lack of standards and training in the security industry as an argument against privatizing even low-level police work. Security guards may be cheaper, they point out, but you get what you pay for. Many security advocates respond that police criticism is often motivated by pure competitive greed, as security guards begin to encroach on police paychecks as well as police duties. Ron Sonenshine, a spokesman for the San Francisco Housing Authority, suspects that much of the criticism of PPS comes as a direct result of just such a turf war. "I think in the long haul the outcome [of hiring PPS] is probably less expensive for the city because you don't pay police overtime, you don't pay police salaries, you don't have to deal with police unions -- and that's probably why some members of the police department are upset." The San Francisco Police Department did not return calls seeking comment.

In other cities, the source of contention between police and private security lies in the private rather than the public sector. Off-duty security gigs can be one of the most lucrative perks of an officer's badge and, in some cases, police are tempted to use their public power to intimidate private firms. Former New York Police Commissioner William Bratton sees an even more insidious problem in the competition between police and private security guards. "Some cops [see] their primary job as their secondary job," says Bratton, who now heads the private security company CARCO. "The idea [is] that after my tour of duty, I'm going to be going on to my private employment, so I don't want to make an arrest in the last couple of hours. So many cops, their real job is the paid detail. The policing? That's their pension job."

Despite the resistance of some police to the encroachment of private security, the transfer of police work to private security firms will continue to expand whether the police like it or not, according to analyst Cunningham. "There's been a recognition in the past 10 or 15 years by police executives that the security world is here and it's here to stay and it's growing. You can either get on the train and ride it, or you can stand in front of it and get rolled over."

PPS owner Teets couldn't agree more. "Do I think [policing is] going to go to the private sector more and more?" he said last January. "Yes. Do I think the government is going to supply the money for that? Yes. Do I think that's going to happen soon? Yes, I do."

By Beverly Gage

Beverly Gage is a freelance writer who lives in New York.

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