SF's private police force


Since long before the turn of the century, San Francisco has had a posse of private police officers patrolling the streets. Back in the 1870s, they were effectively vigilantes; by 1935 they'd become a bit more controlled in their behavior and won official recognition in the City Charter. They're called patrol specials.

For years a fairly small number (there are now 41) have been walking neighborhood beats, hired by local merchants who don't think the San Francisco Police Department is providing enough protection. Legally, the patrol specials are an odd amalgam: They're licensed to carry handguns but not to make arrests. Most of them have some law-enforcement training, but not typically from a traditional police academy. In theory they report to the chief of police, but in practice they're private businesspeople who are hired by, and do the bidding of, merchant groups.

The head of their association, Jane Warner, thinks they're the future of neighborhood policing, and she, like other patrol special fans, openly calls for increased privatization of law enforcement. And the association is asking the San Francisco Police Commission to make it easier to expand its operations.

The patrol specials are mostly an archaic anomaly right now — but the trend toward privatizing the police force is frightening, and the commission ought to put a clear halt to it.

The rules governing patrol specials were forged in a very different era. The city is divided up into beats, and the patrol specials can buy up beats, then charge local businesses for protection. They can hire their own officers, subject to a background check and Police Commission approval. If they see any wrongdoing they're supposed to call the cops — but in many cases they just go ahead and act like real police. "I've arrested hundreds of people," Warner, who owns beats in the Mission and West Portal, told the Guardian recently.

It's more than a little bit weird to still have armed civilians, in uniform, with badges, walking around making arrests when they aren't really accountable to anyone. The potential for problems is obvious: A merchant group might, for example, direct the local patrol special to focus on getting homeless people out of doorways — something that the city has established as not just a police priority but a social issue. The patrol specials aren't taking orders from police headquarters though; they have to do what their customers want. And if they are accused of misconduct, they aren't accountable to the Office of Citizen Complaints (OCC), which oversees all complaints against sworn officers; instead, the department's Management Control Division — which has never been good at disciplining cops — is the final authority.

Nobody paid much attention to the patrol specials until the 1990s, when the San Francisco Police Officers Association — whose members make nice little chunks of change providing off-duty private security and saw them as competition — started complaining. Still, the policies haven't really been updated in decades.

At the very least, the Police Commission needs to completely overhaul the rules for these quasi cops, establishing clear training guidelines, shifting disciplinary authority to the OCC, and demanding direct oversight over hiring and beat sales. But these kinds of private police fiefdoms make us very, very nervous — and the idea that the patrol specials' turf may be expanding is a scary prospect.