Out of Control Policy Blog

Private Guards to Augment Cops in Oakland, Chicago, New Orleans

Cities like Oakland, Chicago, and New Orleans are augmenting their in-house public safety personnel with private armed guards, according to The Wall Street Journal:

Facing pressure to crack down on crime amid a record budget deficit, Oakland is joining other U.S. cities that are turning over more law-enforcement duties to private armed guards. The City Council recently voted to hire International Services Inc., a private security agency, to patrol crime-plagued districts. While a few Oakland retail districts previously have pooled cash to pay for unarmed security services, using public funds to pay for private armed guards would mark a first for the city.

Hiring private guards is less expensive than hiring new officers. Oakland -- facing a record $80 million budget shortfall -- spends about 65% of its budget for police and fire services, including about $250,000 annually, including benefits and salary, on each police officer.

In contrast, for about $200,000 a year the city can contract to hire four private guards to patrol the troubled East Oakland district where four on-duty police officers were killed in March. And the company, not the city, is responsible for insurance for the guards.

Oakland is not alone in seeking to improve public safety while reining in spending. This month, the Chicago City Council, facing a possible $200 million budget deficit, proposed expanding the responsibilities of private armed security forces by authorizing them to write traffic citations. In New Orleans, neighborhood committees have sought to expand special tax incentives to pay for private security for neighborhood patrols. [...]

Oakland police say they consider unarmed guards acceptable, but don't support armed guards. "People want to go with armed guards because they believe it's cheaper, but they lack adequate training [and] background checks," said spokesman Jeff Thomason. "Oakland police are better prepared for this city's streets than a few security guards."

But some local leaders say that with a record budget deficit they have few options to reduce the city's violence. "We need a cost-effective answer to the crime we are facing," said Ignacio De La Fuente, a City Council member representing East Oakland who has led the push for armed guards. He added that he is confident the security company's armed guards -- who will have state-certified public-safety training -- are up to par.

I have a ton of respect for the hard work performed by our public-sector safety professionals every day. However, from a fiscal stewardship perspective, something has to give. Even without the backdrop of massive and mounting local budget shortfalls, compensation to the tune of $250,000 per officer per year seems to me to be inherently unsustainable if the overarching concern is to increase capacity and get more boots on the street.

For $200,000 Oakland will get four new state-certified guards; the city would not be able to afford even one full-time, public-sector officer for that amount. With that sort of stark math, it makes total sense that the Council would opt to maximize what it purchases with its limited public safety dollars.

Leonard Gilroy is Director of Government Reform


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