From the Detroit Free Press Editorial Board
Just … no.
That’s nearly all we can say in response to Senate Bill 594, legislation sponsored by state Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof that would imbue private security guards with the same authority enjoyed by public police.
Meekhof’s bill envisions an unlimited number of private police with minimal training contracted to local governments, school districts, businesses, and nonprofits, with the authority to bear firearms and make arrests. These private cops wouldn’t be subject to the same disclosure requirements as public police, but they would enjoy the same immunity from liability as real police. In other words, private cops could operate largely free of both public oversight and the private-sector threat of corrective litigation.
Make no mistake: This legislation is a nightmare. And, thankfully, it is unlikely to pass.
It is a profound misunderstanding of the purpose police serve, the role of state government and to whom the loyalty of elected officials is owed — and a breathtaking admission by Meekhof that he does not understand any of it.
Meekhof’s bill creates a structure that would put the power of the state into the hands of the barely qualified.
Meekhof theorizes that private police could supplement cash-strapped municipalities unable to fully staff public police departments, working in tandem to keep communities safe. In his telling, this is innocuous, an assist for struggling cities.
But there’s something else that would really help struggling cities provide better police services: increased state funding by restoring cuts to state revenue-sharing made over the last decade. Cities have lost billions in state aid, and it’s true that many have struggled to maintain services.
Directing funds toward a poorly trained, unaccountable private-sector police force is not the answer. The government performs services the private sector can’t. They’re jobs that lack a traditional bottom line. The result of good schools isn’t profit, it’s an educated citizenry. The result of well-run veterans homes isn’t profit, it’s quality care for men and women who served our country. The result of good policing isn’t profit, it’s safe communities.
Plainly put, there is no reason for a private-sector operator to perform any function that does not yield a profit. And so any move to place public good in private hands should be subject to intense skepticism and scrutiny.
“Americans love quick fixes, and they think this will be a quick fix,” says Carl Taylor, a Michigan State University sociology professor and ethnographer whose dissertation compared the regulation of private and public policing. “And I’m saying it won’t be. We lose our power as public.”
But who’s pulling the strings?
Meekhof, R-West Olive, is the bill’s sole sponsor; he refused to tell the Detroit News who was pushing this effort, saying it was not yet public knowledge, a tacit acknowledgment that some outside interest is wielding influence to shape state policy.
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But we know who isn’t in favor: The folks who do the actual work of policing. Law enforcement at every level has denounced this bill, with the Michigan State Police — tasked, in this legislation, with licensing and administering this private police program — rejecting its proposed role, saying instead that the state committee charged with licensing police officers would be the appropriate oversight body.
“It’s soldiers versus mercenaries,” says Taylor, who is also the former owner of a private security company. “When you’re a mercenary, you work for the employer. Some guys can handle that and are neutral. Other guys interpret the mercenary for what it is — I’m paid to kick ass, and the only one who counts here is my client.”
The requirements described by this legislation for applicants seeking a special police agency license are scant, and applicants for such a license need only demonstrate that one employee meets them. Others are lax — applicants for a special police license must have worked as a police officer, or a security guard, or as a special police officer in another state. Applicants also must provide five letters of reference from people who think they’re honest, and need has only avoided felony convictions for the previous five years. Applicants who’ve been deemed insane by a court, he or she can show a court order saying they’re sane now.
That’s a problem, Taylor says.
“A lot of the questions, in theory, could make a lot of sense, but as a practitioner, I don’t give a damn about … background, as long as they can pass the test,” he said, describing the attitudes of many private security operators. “Just give me a warm body.”
Are problem cops welcome?
Meekhof’s bill would allow any private-police license applicant who has held a public police license in the last two years to forgo any kind of background check. That means this legislation offers a route for problem cops to stay on the streets, in private service to cities that should refuse to hire them outright.
A Free Press investigation earlier this year found that public police departments, wary of mediation and scandal, are too willing to let troubled cops slide, often choosing to cut a deal that sees the bad cop gone over prosecution or revocation of license. Because this system isn’t transparent, other cities’ departments may hire such officers, unaware of, or missing key details about, the officer’s prior employment.
The state Legislature approved the legislation, now awaiting presentation to Gov. Rick Snyder, that would strengthen disclosure among police departments. But if departments continue to offer problem cops an exit that includes retaining that professional license, disclosure won’t help much — and this legislation clears a path for such officers to obtain special police licensing easily.
At least a handful of other states allow special police; the Washington Post wrote in 2015 that those ranks are growing.
In North Carolina — where special police licensing process is far more rigorous than the steps Meekhof’s proposes — the proprietor of one private police firm pleaded guilty last year to charges that included illegally detaining and assaulting four men. While awaiting trial on those charges, the man pleaded guilty to the unauthorized use of the law enforcement database, to run a set of license plates after a neighborhood dispute.
Politicians like Meekhof often behave as though their jobs are not to construct and maintain good government but to weaken it, if not dismantle it outright. Unfortunately, some voters have fallen sway to the seductive notion, shouted on the right for decades, that government can only cause, not solve, problems.
It’s a promise this legislation could only make good on.”