From Public Safety to Rent-a-Cops?

February 03, 1993

In the early history of Baltimore City, before a uniform municipal firefighting system was established, a number of private fire companies operated in the city. They fought fires -- but only at properties that had subscribed to the service. Residents and merchants used to fix visible cast-iron markers to their exterior wall to signal they were covered for fire protection.

In an odd twist of history, Baltimore seems to be returning to a contemporary adaptation of the practices of those earlier times. But this time, the concern is police protection.

Worried about escalating crime and unhappy about the city's law-enforcement efforts, several city neighborhoods have recently instituted auxiliary security patrols that are paid for through residents' subscriptions. Other neighborhoods are studying the idea. The advertised attraction is a visible and prompt policing response. "Patrolmen respond to members' calls immediately; members may call ahead to be met on arrival home," promises a leaflet promoting the concept in Bolton Hill.

Lower Charles Village has now gone a step further. Instead of seeking voluntary contributions for an additional security force from owners of residential and commercial property, that neighborhood is proposing a law that would obligate everyone to pay a surcharge along with property taxes. "It's not the best situation, but it's something, until the city can pay for additional services," says Del. Kenneth Montague Jr., who introduced the enabling legislation in Annapolis last week.

We are sympathetic to the concerns of Lower Charles Village. But we think a mandatory, tax-like surcharge to beef up security in a given area of the city is the wrong approach. Particularly in a neighborhood like Lower Charles Village, it would most likely only transfer the drug dealing and muggings to adjoining areas that would not have added security patrols unless they took similar steps.

Private security patrols seem effective because of their very limitations. The uniformed officers are highly visible. But because they lack full police powers, they cannot make arrests -- and therefore can avoid becoming entangled in the time-consuming, poorly working judicial system that ties the hands of the regular police force. If private security guards were to begin arresting and booking suspects -- instead of calling in regular police to do so -- they, too, would end up spending much of their time away from scheduled patrols.

Private security patrols are currently a nationwide fad. They provide an illusion of security for rich neighborhoods but increasingly are also employed by more modest communities. As an industry, they are likely to grow until the nation's cities find the financial wherewithal to perform necessary governmental functions for all their citizens.

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