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Privatizing the police would be a dangerous policy

Oct 5, 2017

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of legislation proposed that was, well, just plain nutty. Some was wrongheaded, some was outrageous, and generally the system took care of itself. There have also been things that became law that I profoundly disagreed with or which filled me with dismay. But I frankly cannot recall being really scared by any of it, until now.

Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof is pushing a plan to legalize a whole new class of private police forces, and if that isn’t immensely frightening, I think it should be.

According to his bills, SB 594 and 595, any citizen who is 21, has a high school diploma or a GED, and hasn’t been convicted of a felony in the last five years, could apply to the Michigan State Police to conduct business as a special police agency. And, oh yes, you’d have to have at least one employee who had some experience as some kind of police officer, or failing that, had a bachelor’s or associate degree in police administration or industrial security.

That’s all you would need to start your own private police force. The Detroit News quoted Harry Dolan, a former Grand Rapids police chief, as essentially saying this was a great solution to enforcing the law when the government and taxpayers are unwilling to spend what they should.

“We are working with fewer resources and are facing a greater need than ever before,” said Dolan, who now lives in North Carolina. He called Meekhof’s plan “a common-sense and fiscally prudent response.”

Yes, this may well save money. There are characters out there who would like nothing better than the chance to legally bully people and get paid for it. Police academies and police forces have gotten much better at weeding and washing those folks out.

This legislation, however, might open the way to give people like that authority, a badge and a gun. What it also would do is give the legislature and local governments as well, an excuse to spend even less money on professional police.

What’s not clear is if eventually the new private police forces would become sort of an elite praetorian guard to protect the rich and well-connected, or whether they would be sent to keep the rabble in check.

George Basar, the police chief in Howell, is anything but crazy about Meekhof’s private police scheme.

“It almost feels like we’re putting together a mercenary force to police in some of our communities,” he said, adding he feared we might be “creating a Blackwater in the state of Michigan,”referring to the private security company that became infamous in Iraq.

Meekhof indignantly denied this. He said his private agencies would be accountable and held to standards. But this is the same senator who has done everything he can to prevent transparency rules and the Freedom of Information Act from being applied to government.

My main problem is this: fundamentally, I am a conservative by temperament. I like the U.S. Constitution, checks and balances, and believe there are certain core functions that only government should do, such as coining money, conducting foreign policy, and being in charge of professionally trained armed forces and police.

That’s what keeps us one nation. Do we really want to risk letting that go?

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio’s Senior Political Analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.