The big selling point is they will enforce no laws and only carry to defend themselves but as a former thief in the night, my worst foe was eyes.Minn. town to replace police with private security force
The central Minnesota town of Foley tried having its own police department and contracting with the county sheriff's department for law enforcement.
Now, in an effort to save money, the city with a population of 2,600 is making a controversial move few others have done: Starting in January, it plans to employ a private security company to patrol its streets.
Foley is believed to be the first town in Minnesota to replace its police force with private guards, according to the Minnesota attorney general's office.
Nationwide, other cities have supplemented their traditional police with contracted officers, said John Firman, director of research for the International Association of Chiefs of Police. Firman said an entirely private security force is a new approach, and his organization hasn't gotten many calls from communities considering the idea.
But as cities across the USA struggle with the economic downturn, more will look at innovative ways of providing public safety, Firman said.
"For the first time in our history … police are no longer immune from budget cuts," he said.
In Minnesota, 59 police departments have been dissolved or combined with other departments since 2000, according to the League of Minnesota Cities. Since it disbanded its police department in 2003, Foley has contracted with the Benton County Sheriff's Office to have three deputies patrol the city, providing coverage for about 17 hours a day. This year, the city paid $24,694 a month for the contract. After cuts in state aid and uncertainty about future funding, the Foley City Council started looking at options to save money on policing. The city decided to contract with General Security Services Corp. to provide 24-hour coverage starting in January for about $16,000 a month.
GSSC has been in operation for 65 years, Vice President Jackson Hall said. The company has 3,800 employees securing 244 federal courthouses in 44 states.
Bill Leoni, director of northern regions, said the company has had a number of contracts with cities to provide specific services. Foley is the first city that GSSC will provide a "full spectrum" of services, he said.
Leoni said GSSC security officers go through extensive training comparable to police officers. They will carry firearms for their own protection and not to enforce laws, he said.
The security officers will provide routine patrols and preventive work, things police don't always have time to do anymore, Leoni said.
"They will provide a highly visible presence," he said.
State and county officials say they have questions about how the security officers will operate and what the impact will be.
In an Oct. 25 letter, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson warned that the city is opening itself up to "financial exposure." She cited the potential for lawsuits for false imprisonment as one example.
Swanson wrote that private security employees may carry a firearm but can use it only in self-defense. Private guards do not have the authority to make arrests other than citizens' arrests, cannot pursue fleeing suspects, make DWI arrests or even traffic stops. There's also the issue of whether self-incriminating statements or evidence taken from a suspect by a security officer could be used in court, she wrote.
The IACP doesn't take a position on different policing models, but it does advise cities to plan ahead and not make rushed decisions, Firman said. What appears to be an immediate cost-saving measure may not save any money in the long run, he said.
"What's driving it is the money, but what we're concerned about is the money doesn't hide the principal issues, which are officer safety and public safety," Firman said.
Minnesota Sheriff's Association Executive Director James Franklin said the move raises basic questions on who pays for public safety.
Because sheriff's departments are responsible for law enforcement throughout a county, Foley residents will have the benefit of deputies who will respond to emergencies and investigate crimes. Since cities use more police services than rural residents, it's a question of who should be paying for those services, Franklin said.
"Are the rest of the taxpayers subsidizing the city of Foley?" Franklin said. "That's for the taxpayers to decide."