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Patrols Gone Private

TTHE CITY OF OAKLAND, California, the eighth largest city in the United States, is struggling with a police shortage and high crime rates. It is exploring the potential of solving part of the problem by using private security officers—at least as a temporary measure until it is able to recruit and train more law enforcement officers.

The city council recently approved a resolution by the city’s Redevelopment Agency for a pilot program that would tap into the city’s redevelopment money to fund four armed private security officers. The officers would be charged with patrolling two high-crime commercial corridors in East Oakland.

While other localities, sometimes at the behest of commercial enterprises, have enlisted private security patrols, they have generally not funded them with public money. Instead, they have set up special tax zones, called business improvement districts (BIDs), through which the affected property owners and merchants agree to pay a special assessment tax to fund private security and other initiatives meant to make an area safer and spur economic development.

The use of redevelopment tax increment funds for crime prevention (such as by hiring contract security) in a redevelopment area is legally defensible, according to the city’s redevelopment agency. The agency cites a finding of the city attorney in 1996, which justified such an allocation due to the connection “between crime prevention and community revitalization.”

The private officers will coordinate their patrols with the Oakland Police Department (OPD) and will work with the officials there, says Larry Gallegos, manager for the East Oakland Redevelopment Area. Gallegos helped write the resolution and is working with OPD on the request for proposals from security firms interested in providing the guards. He will also oversee implementation of the program with the redevelopment agency and the OPD.

The security firm will be required to provide monthly reports detailing the types of criminal activity the officers are dealing with. Gallegos says the contract that will be drawn up and approved by the city council will outline the scope of duty for the officers, which will essentially be foot patrols of the assigned commercial corridors. The officers will not be vested with any special arrest power.

The redevelopment agency is looking for a security firm that has experience in areas comparable to Oakland. “One thing that we probably will be looking closely at is relevant experiences in urban cities such as ours in terms of economically depressed and crime-ridden areas that have historically had issues related to that,” Gallegos says.

Whether the approach will become a permanent solution remains to be seen. For now, it’s viewed more as a pilot program and a temporary measure while the city recruits and trains more police officers. “We’re proposing this to augment what the police department can currently provide now,” Gallegos says. However, Gallegos also says that after the 18-month pilot has ended, the program will be assessed and there is a chance it will be renewed.

One of the sources of contention in the enabling resolution passed by the council is that it provides for the security officers to be armed. The merchants in the area requested that the officers carry firearms, says Gallegos.

“We thought that given the serious nature of some of the crime,” which these communities are facing, “it would be best to have armed security,” he explains.

Additionally, there’s a sense that having the officers carry visible firearms could provide a greater deterrent effect. “It makes the individual think twice about committing a crime, versus if the [guard] was unarmed,” says Gallegos.

Thomas Seamon, CEO of security firm Hallcrest Systems, Inc., in North Wales, Pennsylvania, questions that assumption. Seamon points out that most BID officers do not carry guns. He adds that firearms not only increase the liability for the guard company, but they may also pose a liability for officers in performance of their duties.

“Normally [private security officers] are there to be proactive, to observe, and report. Not to take specific action, not to make an arrest, not to intervene in deadly force situations,” says Seamon.

California Bureau of Security and Investigative Services Chief Paul Johnson says the definition of a security officer under California law is “two words: observe and report.” He adds that in no way are the private security officers “there to act in a peace officer capacity.”

A major difference between public law enforcement and private security is that public law enforcement officers have qualified immunity under federal law. This legal protection prevents law enforcement officers from being sued when acting in good faith, explains Barry Bradley, a private security law expert and partner with Bradley & Gmelich in Glendale, California.

Qualified immunity is something private security officers do not possess. Therefore, they can be sued in civil court. Bradley says that he’s seen lawsuits brought against private security for everything from false arrest to wrongful death.

The Oakland contract will be drawn up to shield the city from legal liability, which the security firm will be responsible for. Upon selection of the guard company, the Redevelopment Agency will make sure that the firm has the necessary insurance to enter into such an agreement.

Depending on the outcome, the pilot could be a model for other cities as well.

“I’m really excited about the prospect of this working in Oakland,” says Bradley, adding, “This is going to be a daring experiment, but I think it’s one that the time has come. And I think security has professionalized itself in California to the point where maybe it can handle this.”