In the mid-1980s, I went into classrooms several times a year to talk about the libertarian philosophy. I discussed how some cities had saved money using private police instead of public ones. Invariably, students expressed concern that private police might become an outlaw gang, robbing those they were supposed to be protecting and shooting them if they didn’t cooperate.
By now, these students are adults. On the nightly news, they are hearing more and more about police shooting unarmed individuals, even those on their backs with their hands up! The public perception is that police who shoot or tase innocent people are rarely held accountable.
What is less publicized, but in fact much more common, is the theft of private property by police using asset forfeiture. If property (car, house, cash, bank account) rather than a person is suspected of being linked to drugs, for example, it can be seized without any real proof of wrongdoing. The police have strong incentive in most states to confiscate property on mere suspicion, since the department usually gets a share of the proceeds.
What looks suspicious to the police can actually be quite innocent. Are you carrying more than $500 in cash? It must be from a drug deal, so the police confiscate it. Do you make deposits to your bank account in amounts between $5,000 and $10,000? You must be “structuring” to avoid having to fill out the paperwork associated with deposits of $10,000 or more, so your account is forfeit. Do you run a motel and report drug users to the police? Your motel is guilty of criminal activity and is seized even though you’ve done nothing wrong! Luckily, the libertarian Institute for Justice is fighting back on behalf of these innocent victims; the Republicans and Democrats don’t have a problem with the seizures and so do nothing.
If you are victimized by the police, you may try to do things the American way and sue. That won’t be much help. Even if you prevail, which is unlikely since the courts tend to support the police, you may be charged “storage fees” for the time that those who confiscated had to care for it. The attorney bills to recover what’s rightfully yours are likely to make even a full recovery a pretty big loss. It’s horrifying that your life savings or home can be taken from you without due process.
However, for the police, the profit is incentive to simply confiscate more. “It’s kind of like pennies from heaven,” explains Kenneth M. Burton, Columbia, Mo., police chief, discussing the money generated from asset forfeiture. “It gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it, to be perfectly honest.”
If a private police force did such things, individuals would cancel their subscriptions to it. Enraged citizens would make sure that city managers would consider the policing contract null and void. Of course, in real life, the private police service would have great incentive to fire rogue officers in order to maintain their contract. The service would be self-policing. If it wasn’t successful in keeping bad cops in line, the company would be replaced with one that truly was there to “serve and protect.”
Instead, we are stuck with a government monopoly on defensive force. When the police become predators, it’s tough to dislodge them. The city managers, police chief, the courts, and the entire police force are all government employees who tend to protect each other, instead of the citizens who employ them. Without the power to withhold our subscriptions, or our taxes that pay police salaries, we have little recourse.
Private police actually save us money. Communities that utilize them not only pay them less, but get the bonus of crime prevention. Policing companies make more money if they can prevent crime rather than chase after criminals, so that’s what they do. It’s not just safer for the citizens; it’s safer for the police too.
Let’s face it: policing is a tough, stressful job. You can get killed doing it. Our police put their lives on the line every day when they don the uniform and strap on their firearm. When cops shoot unarmed citizens or steal property they are sworn to protect, all of our guys and gals in blue are tainted by it. Privatizing our police may be the only way to clean up the corruption.
I wonder how those students that I talked to back in the 1980s are feeling about public police now.