Monday, November 14, 2011

Private Police The Only Way To Real Reform

A Virginia citizen named Myron Rhodes recently wrote a letter to the editor of the Harrisonburg, VA Daily News-Record, criticizing "administrative forgiveness" extended to an inebriated local police official last year. He correctly equated "professional courtesy" with "corruption". I agree with that assessment.

However, there is absolutely no chance that the solution Mr. Rhodes advocated -- "make a better choice at the ballot box" -- will have any effect whatsoever on the behavior of the law enforcement bureaucracy. Policing in America cannot and will not be reformed in its current configuration.
When Average Joe is accused of a crime, long before trial the police eagerly release his identity and mug shots. This is public shaming and perhaps a stained or ruined life. In contrast, when a member of The Brotherhood perpetrates the exact same act, and the bureaucracy decides it doesn't want to prosecute, it is forever locked away as a "confidential personnel matter". There is a word for this: hypocrisy.

The sort of corruption Mr. Rhodes describes has become almost universal among government police agencies. The "blue wall of silence", treating "their own" as above the law is rapidly turning this country into a third-world laughingstock. While the individuals within the system bear full responsibility for taking advantage of it, it is the system itself that has created the conditions necessary for otherwise upstanding individuals to become corrupt.

Remember, "thou shalt not tempt".

The only real way to reform the police is to get government out of policing and thus remove the corrupting influence of taxpayer funding. Coercive funding always means fat, out-of-control ballooning budgets; and constant bailouts for law enforcement managers who refuse to properly manage their department within its budget. Coercive funding means police "services" are paid for before you receive any good or service. If you refuse - or fail - to use such service, the government takes your money anyway. Even if you are falsely arrested or assaulted by a government cop, you don't get a refund -- and usually nothing ever happens to the offending officer, either.

With all things, money means power, and American police are rapidly becoming the Sheriffs of Nottingham -- enforcing increasingly unsustainable levels of taxation. Of course, like all government employees, confiscatory taxation supports ever-higher pay and pensions for themselves -- the job itself becomes a perverse incentive. Police unions and bureaucracies are increasingly establishing themselves among the nation's largest Taxpayer-Funded Lobbying Organizations; meddling in politics to get laws implemented that their supposed "bosses" -- the taxpayers -- don't want. Witness the recent outlawing of open carry in California -- passed largely at the behest of the police unions and bureaucrats.

Real reform of the culture of corruption can only be achieved by replacing bloated, inefficient government policing with privatized police protection.

What would private policing look like? Some parts of it are already familiar to most people. Anyone who has a Yellow Pages can find private police operating now, under the heading "Security Guard & Patrol Service" or similar. As government police departments are closed, the listings in that category will only expand as competent former officers start their own companies. Locally, Massanutten has a private police force paid for by the residents.

It is a rule that those of us in the private sector must compete to win customers. Bad behavior on the part of employees in a competitive market tends to be weeded out rather quickly. A store that has an employee who frequently yells at customers will lose them to the next store down the block; similarly, if a person subscribes to "police protection company A" and one of its officers treats the subscriber like dirt, well, that subscriber can cancel his subscription and his dollars will then flow towards "police protection company B". But this moderating effect can only happen in a free market.

Private police protection could be provided at the level of individual neighborhoods, where neighbors would contribute to hire police protection that closely serves their needs. Other people might simply purchase better insurance coverage; or perhaps some would rely on neighborhood watch groups.

As long as governments operate police agencies, their monopoly, "you can't go elsewhere" outlook will prevail simply because the need to win over customers just doesn't exist. Law enforcement by bureaucracy will remain stubbornly inefficient, expensive to maintain, and difficult to reform. And "professional courtesy" -- call it "corruption" -- will continue to be an ever-bigger problem.


The above article was printed by the Daily News-Record on Wednesday, November 9, 2011, as an "Open Forum" article on the editoarial page.

Additional resources on private policing:

1.  Mises Wiki on private policing.

2.  Reason TV interview: Matt Welch of Reason interviews economics professor Edward Stringham about private police.  Hat tip to Frunkus Baldwin.

3.  Fed Ex has its own police force: "Two years ago, after intense lobbying by FedEx of the Tennessee state legislature, the company was permitted to create a 10-man, state-recognized police force. FedEx police wear plain clothes and can investigate all types of crimes, request search warrants and make arrests on FedEx property."

Note that Libertarians would NOT approve of the level of cooperation FedEx gives to law enforcement further up in the cited article.  But even this can be traced to the government's need to know everything about you.

4.  About 80 private cops protect the 50k residents of the 35-building "Co-Op City" residential complex in New York.

Note that Libertarians would NOT approve of people being allowed to walk off their jobs without the employer being able to replace them at-will.  Unless, of course, the employer freelyt agreed to such a condition.

5.  Jarrett B. Wollstein in his article "Police Forces" describes how they might be funded without resorting to coercion.

6.  Patrick Tinsley, writing in Journal of Libertarian Studies 14:1 (Winter 1998–99): 95–100: Private Police: A Note.  Describes the inability of public police to reform, how a free-market in policing might be different.

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