More residents hiring private security as police budgets are cut

Posted: August 10, 2012

WITH BUDGET CUTS hitting law-enforcement agencies across the country, residents increasingly are taking matters into their own hands by joining town watches or hiring private security firms to help keep their neighborhoods safe.

"Municipal services are on the lean because of financial and economic problems," said Robert Stokes, an associate professor at Drexel University who has studied private security in public places. "These neighborhoods feel like they have no other choice."

Stokes said 20 neighborhoods in Atlanta and at least four in Detroit have hired private guards. News reports show that many other cities including Chicago and Boston also have hired private security forces. Some of the guards are off-duty police officers.

Stockton, Calif., recently filed for bankruptcy and laid off 25 percent of its police force. As burglaries spiked last year, residents in the Stockton neighborhood of Bours Park hired an armed guard to patrol the neighborhood and it led to a decline in break-ins.

In some cases public dollars were used to pay for private security. The Oakland, Calif., City Council hired several private guards in 2009 to patrol crime-ridden neighborhoods.

The demand for public security has been growing since the 1970s. Today there are three times more private security guards as there are federal, state and local law-enforcement agents, said Dr. Simon Hakim, director of Temple University's Center for Competitive Government, adding that the estimate does not include corporate security.

Private guards are cheaper than public police. On average, private security guards earn 47 percent less than sworn officers, Hakim said. Former military or police officers who serve as private guards earn 30 percent less.

"It's common and the rise of private security is spreading," Hakim said.

Besides hiring professional private security, residents are volunteering for town watches to help local police combat crime.

There are about 20,000 town watches in the country and 5 million volunteers, said Matt Peskin, executive director of the National Association of Town Watch, adding that this is a "time when communities play a bigger role with the cutbacks … Crime prevention is always first to get hit."

"There's two things that we're taught: You don't get physically involved and weapons should never be involved," said Peskin. "Generally, the outcome is not good when you carry a gun."

Town Watch groups across the country share Peskin's sentiments after neighborhood volunteer George Zimmerman allegedly took things a step further when he pursued, shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed 17-year-old who was passing through a gated community in Sanford, Fla., in February.

It was only after intense national public pressure, protests and outrage that Zimmerman, 28, was arrested more than a month later. He has since pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder, claiming he shot Martin in self-defense under Florida's "stand-your-ground" law. Zimmerman is out on bail until trial.

Peskin said that at most a 9-1-1 call should be made if a volunteer witnesses a crime or sees something or someone suspicious. Peskin added that he once sent home a volunteer who arrived with a legally owned gun.

"No weaponry whatsoever," said Chris Tutko, director of Neighborhood Watch for the National Sheriffs' Association. "If you have a cellphone, that's your weapon."

Philadelphia's own Town Watch Integrated Services Office has a $619,222 budget and provides training and supplies to more than 700 Town Watch groups operating in the city, said Anthony Murphy, the executive director. He said those groups include 20,000 volunteers, none of whom is armed, They all work hand-in-hand with the Police Department.

"Philadelphia is a city of neighborhoods. Neighborhoods need you to be a good neighbor," Murphy said. "Town Watch helps you to be a good neighbor."

The city has had a jump in murders this year, with 215 homicides compared to 196 at the same time last year.

"Police can't do it by themselves," Murphy said. "We as neighbors have to do it. We have to participate."

Contact Jan Ransom at 215-854-5218 or Ransomj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jan_Ransom. Read her blog, "PhillyClout" at phillyclout.com.

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