NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Private Policing Options for the Poor

December 15, 2011

Protection against criminality is a traditional function of government.  Where government fails, however, people often turn to the private sector.  The need for private security is greatest for low-income families, since they are victimized by crime more often than other income groups.  All too often, however, regulations price low-income families out of the market for private protection, say Kai Jaeger, a graduate student at Duke University, and Edward P. Stringham, the Lloyd V. Hackley Endowed Chair for Capitalism and Free Enterprise Studies at Fayetteville State University.

At the most basic level locks, alarms and armed self-defense are important forms of private security.  Private security also includes informal volunteer policing and professional armed private police.

  • Economists Bruce Benson and Brent Mast have found evidence that private police reduce murder, robbery and auto theft, and strong evidence that private policing reduces rape.
  • Private security agencies also tend to provide services at lower prices than off-duty public officers, enabling poorer communities to buy their own security force.

Despite the benefits of private policing agencies, some high-crime neighborhoods do not hire them.  Among the likely reasons are the cost of regulation and conflicts of interest among regulators.

Moreover, some regulations have dubious public safety rationale.  For example, San Francisco regulates the color of the city's private Patrol Special Police officers' uniforms and requires them to give the police access to proprietary information they can use to their competitive advantage, such as information about private contracts.

Additionally, regulators might block access to private alternatives because of their personal and/or institutional interest in the security market. 

  • Indeed, off-duty work is a lucrative opportunity for San Francisco police officers.
  • Data from 2008 indicates that approximately 50 percent of the 2,300 strong police department work off-duty, earning an extra $9.5 million.

Private policing is an important policy option that should be considered by communities across the country.  Although many policymakers believe that private officers might abuse their power because they are not as accountable as the public police, a 2006 report from the Colorado Department of Regulatory Agencies found no evidence that private security guards abuse their power, even in the absence of statewide regulation.

Source: Kai Jaeger and Edward Peter Stringham, "Private Policing Options for the Poor," National Center for Policy Analysis, December 15, 2011.

For text:


Browse more articles on Government Issues