In 2007, John Robb wrote a Gibsonesque essay on a future he called "Privatopia" in which many functions of the government--most importantly security--became marketable goods. Now it looks like a piece of the future he's predicted may be happening. In Oakland, reduced budgets have led to a decline in police services. Inevitably, as this New York Times story Fred Leland posted points out, private security is filling the gap:
In the wake of the city’s laying off 80 police officers last month, Chinatown is leading a new trend in the crime-ridden city: an increase in privately financed public safety. Mr. Chan has asked every business owner to install a street-facing camera. A new Chinatown security force, perhaps staffed by armed guards, could be on the streets as soon as next month, he said. The layoffs, which helped close a budget deficit of more than $30 million, eliminated a community-policing program that assigned officers to walk their beats and attend neighborhood meetings. Now some residents are pooling resources to restore a law-enforcement presence. The affluent Montclair District in the Oakland Hills and the Kings Estates neighborhood in East Oakland are also looking into private patrols. Experts say the combination of police and private security that Chinatown is pursuing reflects a new approach to public safety. “We’ve been doing policing more or less the same way for a couple hundred years,” said Barry Krisberg, a criminologist at the Center for Criminal Justice at the University of California, Berkeley. “We’ve reached a point financially where we have to start exploring new ways to deliver law enforcement.”
The dynamic inherent in this is very simple. The state no longer provides the public good of security/policing, so the functions are being distributed across the private sphere. There is the traditional bulked-up security you see in gated neighborhoods, as well as the Chinatown shop owners pooling their funds together to provide cameras and monies for a common security force. Of course, this gets into some problems, as a good deal of police functions is locking up perps as well as physically deterring them:
Private guards have a limited scope. They can make citizen’s arrests but cannot investigate accusations of criminal activity or detain a suspect. Unlike police officers, they are not required to undergo psychological counseling or background checks. Public safety experts say they should play a collaborative role, referring crime reports to the police, and making arrests only rarely. Chinatown’s video surveillance has already led to arrests, and suspects in a killing nearby at Webster and 19th Streets this month were apprehended thanks to video supplied to the police.
We are not at the point where true arrest powers or investigations in this sense have been privatized, so this is not totally a "Privatopia" type situation. But for many places in California, which is undergoing a governance crisis of epic proportions, similar measures will probably be taken by towns that find themselves pruning public services.