Thursday, December 29, 2011

When In Danger, Fear, or Doubt...

...Run in Circles, Scream, and Shout.

Extracts from the StarTribune editorial page Tuesday, December 27, 2011:

"Don't experiment with public safety: Towns of Foley, Nowthen pursue dubious policing strategies.

If there's a crime occurring in your neighborhood, or a drunken driver careening through it, whom do you want to respond?

Someone from City Hall? A private security guard who can't make traffic stops, can't pursue fleeing suspects and can use a weapon only in self-defense?

Not likely. With rare exceptions, citizens expect professional law enforcement on the scene as soon as possible when life, property or a community is threatened.

But as the year comes to a close, two small Minnesota towns are on the verge of launching dubious public safety experiments that seem destined to fail these basic citizen expectations…"

"…For centuries, this has been considered one of the most critical responsibilities of local government, a key reason generations of political leaders have shielded it during previous economic downturns.

Foley and Nowthen citizens should also be alarmed that these small communities are bucking warnings from leading Minnesota law enforcement officials and are pioneering this on their own…"

"…The private force would have the power to make citizens' arrests only and could use firearms only in self-defense…"

"…Recent shootings in Grand Marais and Lake City are a reminder that serious crime happens even in peaceful rural communities. Foley and Nowthen shouldn't compromise on the protection citizens deserve."

I encourage you to read the editorial in its entirety.

My response, submitted as a commentary:

Regarding your frantic editorial, “Don't experiment with public safety: Towns of Foley, Nowthen pursue dubious policing strategies,” of December 26, 2011, this is not an argument about choosing whether to have a cop on every corner or giving in to frontier lawlessness. This argument is about whether or not a community chooses to pay extra fees for extra law enforcement staffing.

Residents not served by municipal police departments are entitled to law enforcement services from their County Sheriff’s Office. Service levels and response times are limited by the number of deputies on duty. Depending on the nature of the call, case load, geography, and weather a deputy may be minutes, hours, or days away.

Some communities choose to purchase supplement service – in the form of full-time or part-time uniformed deputies – from their County Sheriff’s Office. This practice creates a visible law enforcement presence and reduces response times. Of course many communities in Minnesota choose not to maintain a police department or pay for extra service from the County Sheriff. Whether funding the County Sheriff’s Office, a municipal police department, or purchasing extra service, public law enforcement has always been funded with local tax revenue.

Professional policing has only been the traditional means of maintaining public order in cities since1829. Before Robert Peel’s London “Bobbies” many communities granted constables limited law enforcement powers. The even older concept of a night watch was a civic responsibility frequently carried out by volunteers.

The small, peaceful communities of Foley and Nowthen have chosen not to pay extra fees for extra services provided by their County Sheriffs’. They have decided to experiment with an idea much like that of the old night watch. Paid protection professionals will patrol, observe, and report incidents of interest to these towns. If these security officers encounter a crime that requires immediate action by deputies with arrest authority they will call 911. These private security officers are not policing, they are providing security services.

Every day security professionals around the world, across the country, and throughout the Twin Cities protect employee populations many times the size of Foley or Nowthen. Even in urban centers security officers routinely accomplish their business objectives without special powers of arrest or the application of deadly force. Unlike relatively recent innovations like public policing, private security personnel have protected private property interests for thousands of years.

It is no surprise that public law enforcement administrators defend their vested interests when asked for advice on these issues. Law enforcement officers and their unions have a clear conflict of interest in this debate that should be obvious to all participants. It surprises me that the Anoka County Sheriff’s Office is at liberty to decide what sort of felonies and misdemeanors it will or will not respond to or eventually investigate. Perhaps this leverage is meant to entice the community to continue to pay for its subscription for added service.

Your lurid editorial closes with the non sequitur “Recent shootings in Grand Marais and Lake City are a reminder that serious crime happens even in peaceful rural communities.” How ironic that these tragic incidents occurred in communities – and in the case of Grand Marais, within the Cook County Courthouse – where the traditional public policing model is still in use.

If Foley and Nowthen are notorious hotbeds of violent criminal activity and public disorder, I have not heard of it, but if the elected representatives in these communities see the need for the sort of services only a sworn law enforcement officer can provide, then they will have find a way to pay for the service. In the meantime the idea of a professional night watch is an interesting one worthy of close examination as we all strive to do enough with less.

UPDATE: The StarTribune published my commentary Thursday December 29, 2011, as an editorial counterpoint titled There is more than one way to protect a town.  The minor editorial changes they made are subtle, but interesting.  Neat.

Reupdate: Be sure to click on the comments tab.  I've taken some shots there by posters challenging my own objectivity, conflicts of interest, and biases.  This one is my favorite:

"It is no surprise that public law enforcement administrators defend their vested interests when asked for advice on these issues."

We can't all be as objective as a director at a private security firm.

Thank you, theoko.  Well played!

Photo credit:


  1. Great thoughts. This really does pose some interesting questions about public safety and private security and the two roles. I think as local government budgets constrict, we will see more dependence on private security.

  2. Is it necessarily a bad thing that the security suppliers ( whether contracted in this case, or peace officers) can only use their fire arms in self defence (or, as is also permitted, in the defence of others facing a threat of imminent grievous bodily harm) ? I'm pressed to think of other circumstances in which I would like my guardians to use their firearms. But then again.... I'm a Canadian.
    Kudos, Michael, for a thoughtful and measured commentary in what often becomes a histrionic debate.
    So many of the most common criminal occurrences are generated by factors that have nothing to do with the size of the responding army. Violent domestic assaults are not reduced by quicker police response, they are reduced by improved economic conditions; proper education of young men about the equality of women, better ways to express themselves and resolve conflicts; and communities of people who are willing to stand up against the bullying of others (domestic violence IS bullying) in the first instances, though the intervenor may be initially unpopular and uncomfortable.
    Drug use offences may be better understood as symptoms of illness and hopelessness, likewise statistically unaffected by rapid response of police or lengthier sentences.

    There is no "cheap" way to reduce crime, but it may, in some circumstances, make sense not to reduce taxation, but to re-allocate resources, by including 'watchmen" in the public security picture, and spending the difference on measures to address root causes, an "investment", rather than a "coping" plan of response.

    The difficult work of bringing additional peace to our communities will be up to all of us, and it will be complicated, requiring experimentation that will be in some cases successful and in other cases less so. If the status quo worked so well, why are we adding police, jail capacity etc.? The experience of the past decade, where all these standard practices have been ever more funded, without tangible improvement, is the "experiment" deserving of study and ultimately, I expect, derision.