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Rescuing America's Inner Cities? Detroit and the Perils of Private Policing

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When the film Blade Runner came out in 1982, and then Robocop hit theaters in 1987, movie watchers were strangely entertained by the dark visions of a dystopic future that they saw splashed across the screen before them. In both blockbusters, cities had become places where chaos was barely contained and where urbanites lived in constant fear. In each feature, the only thing that stood between apocalypse and salvation was a renegade cop.

Today, in too many of America's inner cities, it seems that this very dystopia has in fact materialized.

Take a trip to Detroit, for example, where everything from the city's economy, to countless of its neighborhoods, to crucial civic-services that its residents need to live healthy happy lives, all seemed to have collapsed. Detroit is in bankruptcy. Thousands of its homes are boarded up, and there are precious few resources available to protect, let alone to educate, the almost 700,000 people who still live there.

And yet, this isn't the 1980s. And, so, no longer is America content simply to give up on inner cities like Detroit and abandon them for the suburbs. In fact, bright ideas now abound for how we might rescue America's urban centers. What, exactly, these "new" and "revitalized" inner cities will look like, however, is unclear.

To be sure, at least at the grassroots level, intense energy is going everyday into trying to build a future Detroit in which the needs of its most vulnerable citizens are kept front and center. Be it artists and activists, or local community groups such as the Detroit Eviction Defense and the Boggs Center, or umbrella organizations such as The Community Development Advocates of Detroit (CDAD); many are working hard to ensure that any "new" Detroit will still take care of its least-powerful people.

But there is also a very different version of Detroit's future in the making.

While community groups struggle to keep lawns mowed and children fed over the vast footprint that is the Motor City, others--namely shrewd developers and investors--see the task of remaking Detroit very differently. For them the byproduct of Detroit's collapse has been not desperation but rather unimaginable economic opportunity. Indeed if you have money, it is almost hard to get your head around how shockingly cheap real estate and land both are in Detroit. And, thanks to the bankruptcy, the usual impediments to profiting from Detroit's ruin, such as unions, have been placed in check.

For businessmen eager to cash in on Detroit and remake it's future as they wish, though, there remains a bit of a problem: economic catastrophe tends to breed crime and violence and this, frankly, is disquieting to investors. On the one hand the miles of abandoned buildings and the dire lack of social services have left Detroit ripe for development. On the other hand, many businesses are very nervous about opening new establishments in such a desolated place where there not only are too few drug treatment centers and schools, but, in their view, there also are too few policemen.

Their answer to this conundrum? Well, it is not to call upon the state to reinvest in its social safety nets and public infrastructure. It is, instead, to call on today's version of Blade Runner and Robocop to help them do business--to help them make the money they know there is to be made.

For Mega-developer and Quicken Loans CEO Dan Gilbert, private policing is exactly what is needed to help him, help Detroit. And thus, Gilbert, also the man behind Rock Ventures--a "Family of Companies' investments, real estate acquisitions, business ventures and community efforts in the city" that has wooed or created over 120 new businesses in downtown Detroit-- has constructed a massive computerized control room which monitors the more than 2 million square feet of real estate he owns in the city as well as the "streets and sidewalks surrounding the buildings."

With over 300 cameras trained on the buildings and streets of downtown Detroit, an effort bolstered as well by other large companies such as General Motors, Compuware, and Illich Holdings, investment in a city known for its ruin porn, seems much safer. But surveillance, it seems, is not enough. Gilbert, for example, also sees paying private security officers from a company called Guardsmark Inc. "to spot potential trouble and to deter thieves, drug dealers, muggers and even aggressive panhandlers" as part of his philanthropic duty in the Motor City.

Detroit is by no means the only devastated urban locale to turn to private policing rather than attempt to rebuild the public infrastructure that could also provide public safety. In fact, private security firms have come substantially to supplement, if not completely to replace, the publicly-funded public safety presence of troubled inner cities ranging from Oakland, to New Orleans, to small towns in states such Minnesota, to entire neighborhoods--sometimes extremely rich, sometimes desperately poor--in urban centers such as Atlanta and Baltimore.

Whereas Detroit has come to rely on private policing in no small part because those eager to make money within its borders both insist upon it and pay for it; in other cities public officials have themselves seen private police as the answer to fiscal crisis. Just as private prisons, schools, and health services have been touted as a real benefit to cash-strapped local and state governments, so too have private police forces.

Tempting as it may be to save some money by hiring a company like the Threat Management Center in Detroit rather than paying Detroit Police officers a unionized wage, however, history offers us a most cautionary tale about dancing with this Devil. This is by no means the first time that American companies have seen high levels of urban poverty as synonymous with an opportunity to profit mightily and, thus, this isn't the first time that those with power have responded to civic despair by privatizing policing.

Indeed one can't imagine the Carnegie's and the Rockefeller's of the past amassing the fortunes they did without first having hired their own private police force, the Pinkertons, to protect their interests. The Pinkertons, in fact, were this country's oldest and largest private police forces and because they were paid to protect those who hired them, not the broader public, they soon were reviled by ordinary working class and poor Americans.

Eventually this private police force's freedom to harass or hurt anyone their employers deemed a threat--be they a worker trying to get a fair wage or a poor person begging near the doorstep of a mansion-- was put in check with the Anti-Pinkerton Act of 1893. This piece of legislation not only put restrictions on who could hire private security agencies, but also regulated what such agencies could do when hired.

And yet, despite this legislation, and despite countless historical accounts of why private policing of public spaces is a bad idea in a democracy, ordinary Americans have raised little ruckus today when, once again, only those Americans with money are assured access to security and protection. Worse, astonishing faith has been expressed in the much-touted proposition that private police forces, in fact, act in the best interests of the public.

Where is the concern, if not the outrage, that there is virtually no regulation when it comes to private policing in America's inner cities? Not only can individuals with little if any training police public spaces, but in various locales they are even authorized to make arrests and wield firearms. What is more, unlike public police, private security officers are not required by law to read a suspect his or her Miranda Rights and, more incredibly, they are allowed to use force, in some circumstances even deadly force, if they deem it necessary to do so.

And, then, of course, there is the issue of accountability since, it seems, that private police officers often deem it necessary to use force. Across the country citizens have been subjected not only to such serious harassment by private police forces that they have filed major civil rights actions, but also to false arrests, physical injury, and even death. Whether it is a private security officer shooting a man dead at a sandwich shop in Baltimore, or private police officers severely beating a school kid with cerebral palsy, who holds these men accountable when they do not represent, nor have to answer to, the public?

And yet, despite these worrisome realities, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics sees it, there will be a record 1.2 million private security jobs by 2020 and these people will be "doing jobs once held by law enforcement." So, what might this mean for the future of a city like Detroit? There is little question that it will mean much reinvestment and much new development. There is little question that it will also mean that those with money will eventually make a killing in the Motor City. And, yes, it also means that those who run businesses, where they live and work, will be protected from the poor, the addicted, and the desperate.

What the future of Detroit will look like for everyone else is far less rosy--at least if we refuse to learn lessons from history and simply assume that private policing benefits the greater public. Members of broader public -most ordinary citizens--can neither afford private protection from crime and violence, nor can they be assured that they will be protected from the private police officers who, often, decide that they are in fact the threat.

The only future Detroit, or Oakland, or Baltimore, or Atlanta, that will be a better city for all is one in which the public infrastructure of the city--the public schools, the public utilities, the public health services, the public safety services--are funded, are accessible, and are accountable to every person that lives there. Every single one of them.