Private Police Services Could Benefit Communities, Professors Say

Published October 20, 2010

Communities could save money and enjoy better police response by handing some police duties to private entities, researchers at Temple University in Philadelphia have found.

“Sworn officers are very expensive, and it is a waste to use them” in many instances, says Professor Simon Hakim, an economist and director of Temple University’s Center for Competitive Government.

Hakim cited response to burglar alarms as an example of a waste of police resources. In many communities police spend at least 10 percent of their time responding to false alarms.

“Typically, 94 to 99 percent of burglar alarm activations are false alarms,” Hakim said. “If police respond to burglar alarms, they are providing a private service at public expense.”

‘Verified Response’ Success
Ten years ago Salt Lake City began using a program called Verified Response, in which private security guards respond to burglar alarms. If they see evidence of a break-in or other problem that needs police assistance, they call police.

The city had been charging $100 for responses to false alarms before instituting the Verified Response program. And this was with police giving alarms a low priority.

“Verified Response has been a win-win for our citizens and our department. Due to the low priority of alarm signals, private guard response time to alarm activations has been much quicker than police response,” said Shanna Werner, alarm administrator for the Salt Lake City Police Department.

“Police have been able to reduce the response time to high-priority emergency calls, including panic, robbery, and duress alarms, by nearly one minute” because they spend less time responding to false alarms, Werner said. “Most citizens will pay as little as an additional $5 per month on their monitoring account for guard response, rather than the former $100 false alarm fines. Most importantly, our officers are able to redirect time spent on answering false alarm signals to other public safety concerns.”

Lee Jones, owner of Support Services Group in San Clemente, California, has been providing verified response consulting services to Salt Lake City and other communities, including Fremont and Fontana, California.

Private Service, Public Cost
Jones says when the private alarm business originated, the service included private security guard response. Costs started to climb, however, and alarm companies started sending their alarms straight to local police departments to reduce or eliminate the need for private guard response.

Now, with municipal resources under financial strain, municipalities are pushing back, Jones said.

“It is really considered to be gifting of public funds by dedicating public resources in support of private interest groups,” Jones said. “Many PDs are taking the position that this really is a private security matter and remains one until a 911 emergency is known. They’re starting to say don’t call us until you know we have an emergency.”

Hakim said there are other important reasons to involve private firms instead of police, including changes in the kinds of crimes that are being committed and in the technologies that are being used.

More Sophisticated Crimes
“Police don’t effectively deal with economic crime, which is a rapidly growing area,” he said. “They usually don’t have the knowledge to deal with IT [information technology] and accounting and legal issues. There are also lots of counterfeit goods, from China mostly, and police don’t want to deal with that.

“Lots of accounting firms, IT companies, and other firms have special departments that deal with these issues. A private investigation company can build a case, meet with the district attorney, present evidence, and then have police make arrests. Private companies like these, for a relatively small amount of money, get problems solved.”

Economics Professor Erwin Blackstone of Temple University, who works with Hakim, said private security firms have incentives that often make them more effective than police.

“Private security is basically interested in satisfying clients: preventing crimes,” he said. “Police generally are more reactive. We need to look at self-interest on everybody’s part. Police might like to pursue criminal activity that is easy to handle, like prostitution or drug crimes that add to their arrests and are relatively simple. Economic crime requires much more investigative work.

“This is why police seem to emphasize victimless crimes more than is appropriate,” he added. “It’s not clear who’s victimized by prostitution, minor drug offenses, gambling. These are more morals issues than crime issues, but they’re easier for police to deal with.”

Resistant to Change
Hakim points to another problem with police departments. “They are monopolies, so they do not adapt well to changes [in the kinds of crimes that are being committed] or adjust manpower needs.”

He said crimes against property are down by at least one-quarter since the early 1990s, while robbery and murder rates are down by half. Yet most police departments have added officers.

Jones said politics is a big obstacle to police departments making staff changes or adopting a program as simple as Verified Response.

Instead, many cities are following the lead of Los Angeles, which has simply downgraded the priority of burglar alarm response.

“In Los Angeles an alarm is equivalent to a barking dog complaint,” Jones said. “The average response time in LA is over an hour and costs you $150 if it’s a false alarm.”

Steve Stanek ([email protected]) is a research fellow at The Heartland Institute and managing editor of Budget & Tax News.

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