As cities lay off police, frustrated neighborhoods turn to private cops

With cities cutting their police to balance budgets, some well-to-do neighborhoods are hiring private security, marking an expansion of unarmed guards beyond office parks and gated communities.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File
A closed and boarded up Oakland Police Department recruiting center is seen in downtown in Oakland, Calif., in 2010. Officer layoffs are one reason that some Oakland neighborhoods are hiring private security officers.

On the streets of Oakland, budget cuts have made the beat cop a rare breed, and some of the city’s wealthy neighborhoods have turned to unarmed security guards to take their place.

After people in Oakland’s wealthy enclaves like Oakmore or Piedmont Pines head to work, security companies take over, cruising the quiet streets to ward off burglars looking to take advantage of unattended homes.

“With less law enforcement on the streets and more home crime or perception of home crime, people are wanting something to replace that need,” says Chris de Guzman, chief operating officer of First Alarm, a company that provides security to about 100 homes in Oakland. “That’s why they’re calling us and bringing companies like us aboard to provide that deterrent.”

Long known for patrolling shopping malls and gated communities, private security firms are beginning to spread into city streets. While private security has long been contracted by homeowners associations and commercial districts, the trend of groups of neighbors pooling money to contract private security for their streets is something new.

Besides Oakland, neighborhoods in Atlanta and Detroit – both cities with high rates of crime – have hired firms to patrol their neighborhoods, says Steve Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies. [Editor's note: The name of the organization was incorrect in the original version.]

“It’s happening everywhere,” Mr. Amitay says. “Municipal governments and cities are really getting strapped in terms of their resources, and when a police department cuts 100 officers obviously they are going to respond to less crimes.”

Revenue into cities has drooped every year since 2007, according to the National League of Cities. Oakland, already struggling with one of the highest murder rates in the nation, laid off 80 police officers in 2010, though some have been rehired, says Sgt. Arturo Bautista, a department spokesman.

That has cut down on the amount of time patrol officers can spend watching over neighborhoods, Sergeant Bautista says. “Because of the short staff and the calls for service, officers are pretty much going from call to call to call.”

Meanwhile, the private security industry is projected to grow by about 19 percent – from 1 million to 1.2 million guards – between 2010 and 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Most of that growth will come because private firms are doing jobs once held by law enforcement, according to the bureau.

Doug Mosher, a resident of Oakland’s Montclair neighborhood who helps coordinate a local security council, says many residents were miffed by what they felt was a lack of response by the police to crimes in their neighborhoods.

“Over the past few years there’s been an uptick of crime break-ins in our area,” Mr. Mosher says. “At its current staffing level, [the police] are just unable to provide regular patrols up in the neighborhoods.”

In his neighborhood, burglars have broken into houses and stolen whatever they can get, Mr. Mosher says. Neighbors have struck back; take a drive through Oakland’s hilly neighborhoods and every other block seems to have a sign warning off criminals, sometimes adorned with a photo of a burglar taken from a homeowner’s personal security camera.

De Guzman said the uptick in interest in hiring his firm has been recent, likely due to the recession and the layoffs of police in Oakland and other cities. And where his officers are patrolling, de Guzman says crime has dropped and thieves are looking for other districts to loot.

Several studies have shown that private security is effective in fighting crime. For example, a 2011 study by professors from Duke University and University of Pennsylvania found that private security was responsible for an 11 percent drop in crime in business areas of Los Angeles where they had been deployed.

One concern, however, is that the security officers could be vulnerable to civil litigation. Regulation of private security varies between states and cities, says Seugmug Lee, an assistant professor at Western Illinois University who studies private security companies.

"Legal issues [are] the major challenges to private security companies and security patrol. We don’t have a universal guideline or ... law unlike the public police," Professor Lee says. "Can they carry a weapon? According to our common law, legal tradition, they might, but what’s the boundary, what’s the guidelines? Each municipality has its own rules or regulation."

Beyond the legal issues, private security is also hardly a one-size-fits-all solution. Thus far, the patrols are mostly confined to the few blocks in Oakland that can pay for them.

“We’re not getting calls from lower or middle income neighborhoods,” de Guzman says. “Generally it’s the neighborhoods that can afford it and it’s generally the neighborhoods that have the most to lose.”

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