As the Great Recession forces cities and towns across the United States to cut police services amid record budget deficits, many cities have been experimenting with alternative ways to provide cost-effective public safety services for their citizens. Nowhere is this being illustrated more aptly than in the Bay Area of California, where you’ll find two cities that sit across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge from one another, experimenting with two different solutions to the crisis.
On one side is San Francisco, which is creating a new civilian position within the police department as a way of getting some crime-related work done by staff that cost the city less per hour than police officers. Across the way, Oakland is turning to the private security sector. The latter approach is by far the better option.
To understand why, let's look at what each option entails. Starting in January, San Francisco will begin an approximately $1 million pilot program that will dispatch 15 unarmed civilian investigators
to handle nonviolent crimes, such as burglaries and car break-ins, to free up sworn police officers to respond to crimes in progress and violent offenders more quickly. Known as “civilianization,” this approach uses civilian employees to perform specific lower-level policing tasks. Under the San Francisco Police Department pilot program, civilian investigators will be trained to collect evidence, conduct interviews, and photograph crime scenes. Because these police employees are not sworn police officers, they receive less training, make less money, and derive fewer benefits than police officers.
"This is really about re-engineering policing," Police Chief George Gascón told the San Francisco Chronicle in late July. "It's a program that I believe will increasingly become the model around the country."
Whether Gascón’s correct is yet to be seen; but across the East Bay, the city of Oakland and private businesses have taken what I consider to be the wiser course: they are turning to the private sector to solve their budget and policing woes. Last month, Oakland’s Chinatown signaled it would hire security guards
, possibly armed, to patrol its streets after the city laid off 80 police officers in July
due to record budget deficits and failed negotiations with the police union. This comes two years after the City Council voted to hire private armed security guards to patrol high-crime districts, although the proposal was never implemented
. I call what Oakland is doing the para-police option because it is analogous to the use of paralegals in the legal profession.
Based purely on cost considerations, it isn’t hard to figure out why privatized public security is gaining public acceptance fast. According to The Wall Street Journal
, one Oakland police officer costs $250,000 annually
. Privatization simply makes more economic sense. With just $200,000, the city could hire four private security guards to do similar work.
Both San Francisco and Oakland have come to the only viable answer to the crisis of American policing: the use of less expensive labor for lower-level police work. Simply put, service requests burden police departments and misallocate scarce resources. Why should police officers answer burglar alarm calls, respond to “paper jobs” to report lost or stolen property, stand post at a crime scene, write parking tickets, or perform routine patrol? While most cities were once able to perform such tasks cost effectively, that is no longer a viable strategy.