Downsizing and Privatizing the Police, some Implications

In regard to the push by BLM to ‘defund the police’, which is a red herring–the police are almost certainty not going to be defunded, and even most liberals are opposed to the idea–it is interesting nonetheless to entertain the hypothetical of how privatized or downsized policing could work, and the positive and negative implications of privatized policing. From a libertarian perspective, a case can be made for privatizing or significantly downsizing law enforcement, but, I would also add, under the condition private citizens and businesses are given full discretion to defend themselves and their property with lethal force if necessary.

I find it somewhat interesting how so many conservatives, who just a month ago were complaining about busybody ‘Karens’ and protesting onerous quarantine, shutdown, and lockdown laws, are now championing stronger policing in the wake of the Floyd riots, in spite of the obvious failure of the police to ‘protect and serve,’ unless by protecting and serving, by protecting protesters and rioters that are defacing monuments and damaging private property, but detaining or fining peaceful, law-abiding individuals for not adhering to social distancing.

Without police, or at least under a significantly minimized police presence, who are the Karens of the world gonna call? Who can enforce social distancing? Under a privatized police system, such busybodies could try to report people for non-crimes, but for a fee, which would dissuade many of them from doing so, and private police are under no obligation to heed such requests anyway, as they are only bound by civil law. This is not the case with public policing, in which officers get their orders from the state by decree, and thus have to enforce the law no matter how frivolous it may be.

Also, unlike the public police, the the power of private policing is at least constrained, but the public police will unleash unlimited firepower rivaling that of the military if necessary as the infamous Waco siege showed, as the public police has the full backing of the state, which no private company can ever hope to match.

Other benefits will include less prison crowding and fewer arrests for non-violent or non-serious crimes. Such disputes could instead be resolved between private citizens, through force in the case of self-defense or defending one’s storefront or domicile from vandals or shoplifters, or through mutually agreed-upon remittances to resolve less serious disputes. Under a privatized police system, there would be no more 5-20 year sentences for non-violent or repeat offenders, as it would be unprofitable and logistically infeasible under a market-system to detain people for so long.

Private police can be held accountable in a civil or criminal court of law, such as for the use of excessive force or for false imprisonment, but seeking legal redress against the public police is much harder. The risk of civil litigation and loss of revenue from losing clients, could lead to improved outcomes between law enforcement and civilians.

Because private police are limited in their ability to detain or punish habitual offenders, suspects with a long rap sheet or outstanding warrants are less liable to overreacting for fear of compounded charges, which is a contributing factor for violence between police and civilians. This was a common criticism of the three strikes law, because someone on their final strike has nothing to lose by resisting arrest by any means necessary.

But what about the argument that the police help poor, disadvantaged communities. Wouldn’t private policing put such communities at a disadvantage, who are unable to pay for such services, the result being more crime? I don’t buy this. For one, although the public police are good at arresting and detaining people and solving homicides and other major crimes, they are inept and under-funded and under-staffed at solving small property crimes. If your property gets stolen, there is only small likelihood the perpetrator will be found and the goods recovered. Public policing, especially on-demand police that can be summoned by a phone call, is a relatively modern development in the history of civilization, How did disadvantaged people resolve such disputes and conflict before the advent of police? By beating each other with sticks? People had to actually confront each other face to face to resolve their differences, which carried the risk of physical harm, so if one were inclined to accept such a risk, it had to be for a pretty damn good reason, not for something frivolous.

But there are obvious downsides. Because private police are severely limited in their ability to detain, repeat offenders for small crimes would be a problem. Such offenders would be fined or briefly detained, only to re-offend with impunity. Being locked away for the remainder of one’s life or for many decades imposes a serious cost from the perspective of the criminal, far worse than a fine, which can be treated as a cost of doing business as opposed to an existential risk. Property crimes would probably go up a lot, particularly crimes of opportunity, in which private citizens have no rational incentive to stop such crimes unless personally affected. Under a privatized or a downsized police system, although there would be less reporting of frivolous crimes, there would also be less reporting of serious crimes. For example, if Bob witnesses a thief, Ted, robbing Jake’s car, under the current system Bob can call the police to report Ted, at no financial cost or injurious risk to Bob. Under a system of minimal or private policing, Bob would have to either pay a fee to summon the privatized police or confront Ted in person, the latter which carries a risk of harm for Bob. The rational choice is to do nothing, as Jake’s loss in no way hurts Bob.

There is also no guarantee the threat of lethal force from armed private citizens or a private police force would dissuade criminals. A reason is, when a criminal, especially a habitual offender, is caught by the police in the act of committing a crime and with a firearm (which carries additional charges), a long jail sentence is all but guaranteed. As discussed above in regard to the public police having the full backing of the state and discretion to use unlimited force if necessary, there is a near-zero likelihood of ever escaping the public police, so that long jail sentence is effectively a sunk cost, the cost being lost years of life (escape is so rare, that when it happens, it merits inclusion on Wikipedia) But under a private police system, a criminal confronted by an armed private defender at least has some hope of freeing oneself from the confrontation, by escaping by car or foot, returning gunfire, pleading for mercy, a mutually agreed-upon restitution, etc. Death would be the worst outcome for the criminal but not a guarantee, so the calculation shows the probabilities of these outcomes times the cost under the privatized system is less than the cost of the certainty of long jail time under the public one.