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Re-fund, don't defund, the police

Re-fund, don't defund, the police
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The recent police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin, touched off another round of protests around the country. Something must be done to decrease the abuse of power by police officers, but the violence of these protests illustrates that “defunding” the police is not a practical alternative. Instead, it is time to reconsider how we fund policing. 

The desire to defund a police department whose officers abuse their power is understandable. Money, and the threat of losing it, often provide powerful incentives to serve the interests of others. But simply cutting police budgets is unlikely to create much incentive for the police to improve their behavior.

The problem is that police forces are local government monopolies and the people in the communities that they “serve and protect” have little ability to fire the officers or whole departments when they are abusive, racist, or negligent. Although market competition doesn’t weed out all racism, it tends to minimize it because private companies fear losing their customers and profits to competitors.  If we want to improve the incentives of the police, we need to introduce market competition. 

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Luckily a large competitive market already protects people and property in the United States —the market for private security. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 1.2 million people are employed in private security. That’s nearly 50 percent more people working as private security officers than as government police officers.

Private security officers vary from unarmed night watchmen in warehouses to highly sophisticated casino security personnel in Las Vegas. The scale and method of provision also vary widely. A single property can be protected by a lone guard operating an individual proprietorship or thousands of acres. People can be protected by security companies with many thousands of employees.

Security provision is often bundled with another good, such as homeownership or college. More than 60 million Americans live in private gated communities that have their police or security guards. Duke University Police Force, for instance, has 176 full-time employees with jurisdiction over 8,000 acres, 14,000 students, and 34,000 employees between the university and medical center. Duke’s police force serves a larger population than 95 percent of government police departments nationwide.

Private policing need not be geographically contiguous.  North Carolina’s Company Police Act gives private special police officers full police powers on the property of companies that employ them. About 75 private policing organizations exist in the state. One company, the AlliedBarton Company Police Force, employs 50 officers and is a subsidiary of the larger 50,000-employee AlliedBarton Security Services company, which provides security to 40 percent of Fortune 500 companies.

News headlines are not filled with stories of white private security officers shooting Black people because businesses would fire private security companies that employed abusive officers and switch to another firm. We need to give communities that are abused by government police officers this same freedom to choose who protects them. 

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Currently, private security, just like private schooling, is more commonly used by the wealthy than others because they can afford to pay for the service twice – once with their tax dollars and a second time when they turn to private providers. Defunding abusive government police departments should be coupled with providing vouchers that citizens can use individually or jointly in their communities to hire private security companies. The profit motive will encourage entrepreneurial security companies to innovate to meet this new consumer demand.

The need for security will not be satisfied by hiring more mental health counselors or spending more on the homeless, as some activists suggest. Still, market competition can provide nonabusive protection for minority communities. Unfortunately, the radical leftists in Antifa and Black Lives Matter are unlikely to realize that capitalist competition is the best solution to abusive government policing. 

Benjamin Powell, Ph.D., is a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, Oakland, Calif., and the executive director of the Free Market Institute and a professor of economics at Texas Tech University’s Rawls College of Business.