Private Police: Mercenaries for the American Police State

03/05/2015 06:43 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2015

"Corporate America is using police forces as their mercenaries."--Ray Lewis, Retired Philadelphia Police Captain

It's one thing to know and exercise your rights when a police officer pulls you over, but what rights do you have when a private cop--entrusted with all of the powers of a government cop but not held to the same legal standards--pulls you over and subjects you to a stop-and-frisk or, worse, causes you to "disappear" into a Gitmo-esque detention center not unlike the one employed by Chicago police at Homan Square?

For that matter, how do you even begin to know who you're dealing with, given that these private cops often wear police uniforms, carry police-grade weapons, and perform many of the same duties as public cops, including carrying out SWAT team raids, issuing tickets and firing their weapons.

This is the growing dilemma we now face as private police officers outnumber public officers (more than two to one), and the corporate elite transforms the face of policing in America into a privatized affair that operates beyond the reach of the Fourth Amendment.

Owing to the general complacency of the courts and legislatures, the Fourth Amendment has already been so watered down, battered and bruised as to provide little practical protection against police abuses. Indeed, as I make clear in my book A Government of Wolves: The Emerging American Police State, we're already operating in a police state in which police have carte blanche authority to probe, poke, pinch, taser, search, seize, strip and generally manhandle anyone they see fit in almost any circumstance. Expanding on these police powers, the U.S. Supreme Court recently gave law enforcement officials tacit approval to collect DNA from any person, at any time.

However, whatever scant protection the weakened Fourth Amendment provides us dissipates in the face of privatized police, who are paid by corporations working in partnership with the government. Indeed, if militarized police have become the government's standing army, privatized police are its private army--guns for hire, if you will. This phenomenon can be seen from California to New York, and in almost every state in between.

Technically, a private police force is one that is owned or controlled by a non-governmental body such as a corporation.

Read the fine print, however, and you'll find that these private police aka guns-for-hire a.k.a. private armies a.k.a. company police officers a.k.a. secret police a.k.a. conservators of the police a.k.a. rent-a-cops don't exactly remove the government from the equation. Instead, they merely allow them to work behind the scenes, conveniently insulated from any accusations of wrongdoing or demands for transparency. Indeed, most private police officers are either working for private security firms that are contracted by the government or are government workers moonlighting on their time off.

Today these private police can be found wherever extra security is "needed": at hospitals, universities, banks, shopping malls, gated communities, you name it. Yet while these private police firms enjoy the trappings of government agencies--the weaponry, the arrest and shoot authority, even the ability to ticket and frisk-- they're often poorly trained, inadequately screened, poorly regulated and heavily armed. Now if that sounds a lot like public police officers, you wouldn't be far wrong.

First off, the label of "private" is dubious at best. Mind you, this is a far cry from a privatization of police. These are guns for hire, answerable to corporations who are already in bed with the government.

Second, these private contractors are operating beyond the reach of the law. As attorney Fred Gittes remarked, "There is no accountability. They have the greatest power that society can invest in people -- the power to use deadly force and make arrests. Yet, the public and public entities have no practical access to information about their behavior, eluding the ability to hold anyone accountable."

So what happens when the government hires out its dirty deeds to contractors who aren't quite so discriminating about abiding by constitutional safeguards, especially as they relate to searches and heavy-handed tactics? As security expert Bruce Schneier points out, "Many of the laws that protect us from police abuse do not apply to the private sector. Constitutional safeguards that regulate police conduct, interrogation and evidence collection do not apply to private individuals. Information that is illegal for the government to collect about you can be collected by commercial data brokers, then purchased by the police... If you're detained by a private security guard, you don't have nearly as many rights."

Third, more often than not, the same individuals are serving in both capacities, first on the government payroll, then moonlighting for the corporations. Not surprisingly, given the demand for private police, you'll find that police in most cities work privately while they are off-duty.

Fourth, what few realize is that these private police agencies are actually given their police powers by state courts and legislatures, which do not require them to act in accordance with the Constitution's strictures or be accountable to "we the people." As legal analyst Timothy Geigner observes, "They're hiding from public scrutiny behind the veil of incorporation, which may rank right up there among the most cynical things a government organization has ever done."

As history shows, we're not forging a new path with these private police agencies. In fact, we're simply following a model established long ago, not only by dictators who relied on private guards to do their bidding, but also by the likes of Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who relied on their own private police force, the Pinkertons, who had broad authority to "harass or hurt anyone their employers deemed a threat."

Nevertheless as historian Heather Ann Thompson points out, "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 all is said and done, privatization in the American police state amounts to little more than the corporate elite providing cover for government wrong-doing.

Either way, the American citizen loses.