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Police Failures in Philadelphia Have Made Private Policing More Attractive

While “private policing” is in many people’s minds a feature of dystopian science fiction or the fantasies of libertarian economists, the reality is that private security is far more common than most think. Indeed, as Georgetown professor John Hasnas points out, it is all around us. Unfortunately, the impetus for much of the growth in the private security industry has been the inadequacies of state-provided protection.

An example of this phenomenon is JNS Protection Services, which recently garnered attention in the Philadelphia Inquirer. JNS provides a variety of security services in Georgia and Pennsylvania, including North Philadelphia, where Temple University is located.

Temple Students living off campus fear for their safety. This is understandable, considering the amount of crime North Philadelphia is experiencing. On November 28, 2021, Temple senior Samuel Collington was fatally shot in a parking lot near campus during what appears to have been an attempted robbery. Less than two weeks earlier, on November 16, high school senior Ahmir Jones was also killed during a robbery attempt just blocks from Temple. In 2021, Philadelphia as a whole surpassed its murder record; the previous peak of over five hundred murders annually was during the crack cocaine epidemic of the early 1990s.

After a broad-daylight armed robbery took place outside one student’s residence, his mother decided to hire JNS to patrol his neighborhood. Although JNS was initially hired to patrol the area three days per week, the plan came to the attention of a Facebook group of Temple parents, and they contributed funds to expand the service to five days per week.

An opinion column detailing the events included a former Philadelphia police officer’s views on parents’ move to hire private security:

“They’re just a town watch,” pointed out David Fisher, a retired Philadelphia police officer and president of the National Black Police Association, Greater Philadelphia chapter. “They are more eyes and ears on the streets that they’re patrolling. It’s good. But will it be effective? I’m not sure.”

While we would not expect Fisher to apologize on behalf the Philadelphia Police Department for failing to maintain public safety to such an extent that the parents of students at a premier research university feel the need to hire private security, his condescending attitude is notable for two reasons.

The first is that it provides further evidence suggesting that, despite the rhetoric and billions spent on community-oriented policing (COP), a significant contingent of police officers never bought into it and its emphasis on police-community partnerships. Rather, COP became popular among police departments mainly because of the gibs being handed out by the Department of Justice. Instead of being a vital component in the production of public safety, nonpolice are “just a town watch” who are, at best, “more eyes and ears on the streets” that can be useful to the real police.

The second reason is that while Fisher expressed concerns over whether private security will be effective, the Philadelphia Police Department is able to escape such scrutiny despite the record number of murders and students being killed by armed robbers. In contrast to JNS Protection Services, the city police do not have to demonstrate their effectiveness to Philadelphians in order to get paid. Local (as well as US) taxpayers will continue to fund them regardless.

Perhaps parents will find that JNS’s services are ineffective or unsatisfactory. Perhaps a competitor will provide a better service at a lower price. But just as school choice creates financial incentives for public schools that give parents more control, security providers are more responsive when parents have police choice.

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