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A comparison of Public and Private Policing in America Essay

The responsibility of citizen protection, property security, and the maintaining of law and order in a community is traditionally taken on by the public police department. The police personnel are hired, paid, and report to officials at various levels of the local government. Local responsibilities usually fall under the umbrella of the city police department or county Sheriff, while other tasks such as patrolling our highways may be the responsibility of the state police.

An increase in population, growth of industry, and a rise in crime have resulted in the inability of many police departments to effectively provide services as in the past. The result is the emergence of private police departments and private security companies. Private police departments have been operating since the early 1970’s (although private security companies have been in existence much longer). Large corporations, gated communities, retail establishments, and businesses that engage in government contracting all have formed private police departments.

These departments, however, have not been met without criticism, skepticism and debate. Arguments have been made that the private departments are not adequately trained, lack professionalism, and do not have the authority of public police departments. This may be partially true but each private department needs to be examined individually to better assess these arguments. Some private departments require officers to attend law enforcement academies along side officers from municipal departments.

This ensures the proper training is obtained and creates a more professional department. The responsibilities of a private police department have also been met with criticism. A comparison of responsibilities shows that many of the private departments perform the same duties and function in a similar manner to that of the public departments. In fact, Zalewski (2007) suggested that “the functions performed by the private organizations are not dissimilar to the functions of the public services”.

Both public and private departments enforce laws, protect lives and property, and are required to report to higher authority. The manner in which, and to whom these responsibilities are carried out do differ in many ways. According to Joh (2006) public police systems and policies are governed by law. The U. S. Constitution, state constitutions, and local ordinances provide parameters establishing many of the procedures used in police work. Public police must also be responsive to requests of an entire community, city, town, or state.

The interest of all citizens regardless of where he or she lives or works is protected by the public police. The need to protect all citizens of the community may give some citizens the feeling that not enough patrols are being made because of lack of exposure of the police. All public police officers are required to attend a law enforcement training academy and undergo field training prior to performing the duties and meeting the needs of the community. In many instances psychological evaluations are part of the screening process for entry into the police field.

Private police departments and their personnel are governed by the policies established by the business or client paying for the service. An exception to this is a case in which an officer attends a municipal training academy and receives a state certification. These officers are also bound by the policies and regulations set forth by the local government in addition to the business or client. Although Joh (2004) suggested that there is difficulty in distinguishing the differences between the responsibilities, function, and appearance of the departments, the law recognizes an absolute distinction.

Joh suggested that the private police are “unburdened by the constitutional criminal procedure or state regulation”. Zalewski (2007) indicated there were several more distinctions between the public and private police. Training, accountability, and job responsibilities may vary depending on the business or client associated with the private police. They receive minimal training as compared to the public officers. They are accountable to the client or business owner, instead of government officials and the citizens of the community.

The job is primarily that of securing the property and interests of the client as compared to the general public as in the case with public police. Private police are also constrained to the boundaries of the client when performing duties. They are not allowed to conduct law enforcement work in the city streets. Training is a very controversial issue in the comparison of public versus private policing. As previously mentioned, public police officers attend an extensive and intensive training program supported by the local and state government.

Part of the recruiting process usually involves written, oral and psychological testing to ensure candidates have the capability to learn the legal aspect of the job, and the psychological capability to deal with the unknown and sometimes grueling calls for service. Field training with an experienced officer is also a requirement to allow the recruits the opportunity to demonstrate their acquired skills and learn additional procedures that are better taught in a “hands-on” environment instead of the classroom.

In contrast, O’Leary (1994) suggested that the training of most private police and security officers is limited, at best. The only training some of these officers receive is in the use of firearms. Training in areas such as search and seizure and other legal issues is almost non-existent within a private police department and O’Leary indicated it is critical that officers receive constant training in these areas. An argument against the private police department could be that the lack of training is putting the officers at potential risk.

They may be called upon to handle a situation in which they received no training or had limited exposure to it. Although these risks may be associated with the public police also, there is a greater probability that the public police have received more training, and will probably have assistance from other officers patrolling the streets when they come upon a risky situation. Although there are an increasing number of private police departments, the shift away from the public police to maintain community security has been gradual (Noaks, 2000).

Most organizations opting for the private policing are do so with extreme care, an in many instances, with the assistance of the public police. For instance, a local gated community has its own private police department. The police are responsible for protecting the lives of the residents within the community as well as patrolling the entire boundary and streets of the property including all of the facilities and buildings. Most of the officers on this department have attended a municipal law enforcement training academy, and therefore, respond to criminal complaints within the boundaries of the property.

Summons’ can be issued and arrests made when the officers determine a crime has been committed. Depending on the nature of the crime however, a local public police may also be called in to assist the private police. The local police may have more experience handling particular situations, but also have more resources available to them, such as mental health counselors or social workers, in the event of possible suicide or other domestic cases. The growing population, increase in crime, and limited resources of public police make private police departments valuable assets.

Although the controversy and debate over the abilities and responsibilities will probably continue, there is evidence that communities, businesses, and other private entities can benefit from both private and public policing. There are obvious differences in organizational and operational structures between the different departments, but the overall job is quite similar. Both types of departments are tasked with protecting life and property and assisting residents or citizens.


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