The Ethics of Private Police

In my historic neighborhood, we are having a vigorous debate about the wisdom/propriety of paying monthly “dues” to hire off-duty police officers to conduct extra patrols. The concern is that the Indianapolis police force is stretched thin, and despite Mayor Ballard’s emphasis on public safety, not much has changed, and certainly not for the better.

I understand the problem; it’s real, and not improving. Like my neighbors, I want to feel that my person and property are being adequately protected. But I have a real problem with “rent-a-cop” proposals of this sort.

Public safety is one of the very few things that virtually all Americans believe should be provided by government. Practically speaking, private policing creates the classic “free rider” problem–if I pay a private security guy to patrol my street, my neighbor who refuses to pay his fair share for this service will benefit anyway. Ethically, the question goes to the heart of why we have collective mechanisms like government in the first place: why should citizens who can afford to pay extra get adequate basic services while our poorer neighbors don’t?

 If I thought that hiring private security for the Old Northside would prompt the city to deploy added police in underserved poor neighborhoods–where social dysfunction and economic distress increases the incidence of violent crime–I might reconsider my opposition, but anyone who understands the way these things work knows how unlikely that is. It’s more likely that the Mayor would breathe a sigh of relief and REDUCE the public police force proportionately. My neighborhood would benefit at the expense of poorer areas.

What’s worse, we’d be echoing the message that seems to resonate with all those “tea bagger” folks: that we don’t need no stinkin’ government. If for some reason you can’t fend for yourself,  it’s probably because you are undeserving. In any case, that’s your problem.