Dozens of private security companies have been given police powers by the state of North Carolina — part of a pattern across the nation in which public safety is shifting into private hands, the Washington Post reports. Private firms with outright police powers have been proliferating in some places — and trying to expand their terrain. “Company police agencies” are lobbying the North Carolina legislature to broaden their jurisdiction, now limited to the private property of those who hire them, to adjacent streets. Elsewhere — including wealthy gated communities in South Florida and commuter trains between Miami and West Palm Beach — private security patrols without police authority carry weapons, sometimes dress like SWAT teams, and make citizen’s arrests.
Private security guards have outnumbered police officers since the 1980s, predating the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. What is new is that police forces increasingly turn to private companies for help. Private-sector security is expanding into spheres — complex criminal investigations and patrols of downtown districts and residential neighborhoods — that used to be the province of law enforcement agencies alone. The more than 1 million contract security officers, and an equal number of guards estimated to work directly for U.S. corporations, dwarf the nearly 700,000 sworn U.S. law enforcement officers. “You can see the public police becoming like the public health system,” said Thomas Seamon, a former deputy Philadelphia police commissioner who heads Hallcrest Systems Inc., a leading security consultant. “It’s basically, the government provides a certain base level. If you want more than that, you pay for it yourself.” Lisa Thurau-Gray of the Juvenile Justice Center at Suffolk University Law School in Boston said private police “are focusing on the priority of their employer, rather than the priority of public safety and individual rights.”