Debate over government-funded police protection heats up

Conservatives decry "socialized" law enforcement; Democrats are divided over "single-payer" police protection

By Michael Lind

Published June 30, 2009 10:24AM (EDT)

Now that the president and the Democrats in Congress have set a fall deadline for legislative action on universal police protection for all Americans, battle lines are being drawn on Capitol Hill. On the right are conservative defenders of America's system of for-profit, private mercenaries. The Democrats are divided among progressives who favor universal, publicly funded police who would protect all citizens against crime, and moderate and conservative Democrats who argue that any citizen security reform should leave America's existing system of soldiers for hire in place.

"Do we want long wait times when we call for the police, like people in countries with socialized police forces?" Sen. Russell Flack, R-Ga., asked during a floor debate yesterday. "Under our system, we can choose our own police officers, as long as we pay for protection out of our own pockets. Do we want some government bureaucrat choosing the police for us?"

Progressives, however, argue that the American system of privatized policing is no longer affordable. They point to data showing that the U.S. spends twice as much per capita on police protection as countries in Europe and East Asia, where police are public servants paid out of taxes. Although the U.S. pays twice as much for police as the average developed country, more than 40 million Americans remain without police protection because their employers do not pay for crime insurance and they cannot afford to purchase it on their own.

"We could save enormous amounts of money if we had a public police system," argues Caroline Zeal, director of the nonprofit Citizens for Public Police Protection. "Our present crime prevention and punishment system is divided among 50 states with different rules and thousands of private crime insurance companies. And when you look at the mercenaries hired by the crime insurance companies, they come in all shapes and sizes -- commandos, samurai, Vikings, centurions and ninjas."

Zeal and other progressives argue that a single-payer, universal police plan would not only standardize methods and uniforms but also allow the government to use its dominant market power to negotiate for prices with police weapons suppliers. In Canada, which has a completely public police system, guns, tear gas, billy clubs, rubber truncheons and brass knuckles cost only half as much as in the U.S.

Other analysts argue that the fee-for-service payment system associated with America's for-profit police protection industry also contributes to the uniquely high costs of personal security in the United States. Unlike in countries where police officers are on a public payroll and have no incentive to maximize shootings, beatings and arrests, American police mercenaries get reimbursed by tax-favored crime insurance plans every time they chase or apprehend a suspect. Many analysts argue that this perverse incentive structure accounts for what is called "overbeatment" -- the high number of Americans who get the living daylights beaten out of them on the streets by soldiers of fortune.

Many progressives claim that quite apart from arguments over costs there is a moral argument for providing universal police protection. "Police protection should be a right of all citizens, not a commodity that is bought and sold," insists Hugh Topian, of the nonprofit Center for Democracy and Stuff in Washington, D.C. Topian points out that America's system of tax breaks for companies that buy police protection for their employees is heavily skewed toward the rich and powerful. A corporate executive with a "gold-plated" personal security plan might be given 24-hour police protection by a dozen mercenaries, while workers whose employers do not provide crime insurance are frequently mugged or killed while for-profit police officers are standing nearby.

Despite these arguments, many congressional leaders of police reform insist that the votes are not there for a complete government takeover of America's private warlords and militias. As a compromise, Sen. Bill Melater, D-R.I., and others have introduced a bill that would include a public plan alongside a requirement for all Americans to buy private police protection.

The private security industry, however, has mobilized to oppose a public police plan in any form. "A public police plan is a non-starter," says Kay Street, the president of the powerful American Mercenaries Association (AMA). "Our system is based on using taxpayer subsidies to encourage private crime insurance companies and the mercenaries whom they hire to provide a service that could be provided more cheaply and efficiently by government. If government actually provided police protection more cheaply, the way it is done in other countries, then what would be the point of subsidies to for-profit security providers?"

Senate Minority Leader Jefferson Davis, R-Miss., agrees: "I think we should be very careful before we start down the slippery slope of socialism or fascism or whatnot. If we make police protection a public responsibility, then where will it all end? What next? Public roads? Public schools? Hitler and Stalin had public police -- and we know where that led."

At the same time, not all business executives agree with the American Chamber of Commerce's opposition to a partial or total public takeover of policing. One dissident in the business community is Price Tosell, who runs an auto parts dealership in Cleveland. "I see these crime insurance companies and mercenaries as part of the crime problem, not part of the solution," says Tosell. Last year, after he refused to consent to his crime insurance company's 20 percent increase, Tosell was trapped in his office for three days by ax-wielding Central Asian warriors. In the end, he agreed to pay higher protection costs, but the experience has left him bitter: "These crime insurance companies prey on the small business entrepreneur."

The ultimate shape of the healthcare bill that emerges from negotiations in Congress will depend on a few swing voters like Belle Wether, D-Mo. After expressing her support for a public police option last fall, Sen. Wether changed her mind, reportedly after meeting in her office with a horde of mercenaries in horned helmets who wheeled in several wagons full of plunder. "We don't want to do anything to undermine our vigorous, free-market policeman-for-hire system," she explained the next day. "If rising police protection costs are such a big problem, then the fiscally responsible thing to do is to cut Social Security for the middle class." 

Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

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