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As cities lay off police, frustrated neighborhoods turn to private cops

With cities cutting their police to balance budgets, some well-to-do neighborhoods are hiring private security, marking an expansion of unarmed guards beyond office parks and gated communities.

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A closed and boarded up Oakland Police Department recruiting center is seen in downtown in Oakland, Calif., in 2010. Officer layoffs are one reason that some Oakland neighborhoods are hiring private security officers.

Paul Sakuma/AP/File

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On the streets of Oakland, budget cuts have made the beat cop a rare breed, and some of the city’s wealthy neighborhoods have turned to unarmed security guards to take their place.

After people in Oakland’s wealthy enclaves like Oakmore or Piedmont Pines head to work, security companies take over, cruising the quiet streets to ward off burglars looking to take advantage of unattended homes.

“With less law enforcement on the streets and more home crime or perception of home crime, people are wanting something to replace that need,” says Chris de Guzman, chief operating officer of First Alarm, a company that provides security to about 100 homes in Oakland. “That’s why they’re calling us and bringing companies like us aboard to provide that deterrent.”

Long known for patrolling shopping malls and gated communities, private security firms are beginning to spread into city streets. While private security has long been contracted by homeowners associations and commercial districts, the trend of groups of neighbors pooling money to contract private security for their streets is something new.

Besides Oakland, neighborhoods in Atlanta and Detroit – both cities with high rates of crime – have hired firms to patrol their neighborhoods, says Steve Amitay, executive director of the National Association of Security Companies. [Editor's note: The name of the organization was incorrect in the original version.]

“It’s happening everywhere,” Mr. Amitay says. “Municipal governments and cities are really getting strapped in terms of their resources, and when a police department cuts 100 officers obviously they are going to respond to less crimes.”

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