Surge in private security illustrates that safety is for communities with deep pockets
Poor communities that cannot afford private security must rely on law enforcement for protection.
Tay Harrison lives in a residential section of Atlanta’s East Side. During the past few months, he’s noticed armed security guards outside businesses and gas stations downtown in more metropolitan areas. However, in his neighborhood, which struggles with crime, there’s not that kind of protection.
“We don’t have private security around us. You gotta look out for yourself,” Harrison tells theGrio. He lives in Atlanta Police Department’s Zone 6, and in that area, property crimes, burglaries and car thefts are up 23% in his community.
People on the East Side must rely solely on the police, and lately, that’s been difficult. “Right now, you can’t count on [the police],” he says. “You can call them and they’ll take an hour to get to you.”
In the wake of public safety and crime concerns growing during the last few years, private security and private patrols have become more common across American cities, except in poor Black communities, where those concerns are highest. Commercial areas in cities such as Atlanta, Philadelphia and Chicago have seen a rise in the use of armed private guards.
“[The industry] is in hypergrowth and that’s due to the fact that policing is in crisis right now,” Chris Rich, the CEO of Hawque Protection Group, a private security company based in Atlanta says, referring to staff shortages in U.S. police departments. “There’s a culture issue within law enforcement and that’s forcing private security to expand.”
Poor communities that cannot afford private security patrols must rely on law enforcement for protection. But there’s been an intense level of scrutiny and distrust of police since the murder of George Floyd in 2020 by a police officer. In the fallout of that racial reckoning, police agencies are struggling to retain and hire officers. A survey from Police Executive Research Forum found a 45% increase in officer retirements and an 18% increase in resignations in 2021 compared to 2020. Another survey from the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that 78% of departments are struggling to recruit new officers.
Consequently, more residential areas are pooling their money for private security services to protect their homes and their blocks. Community members in a Howard Beach, New York, neighborhood hired security to combat crime. The same thing happened with a community group in Greenwich Village, New York City. A group of residents in a Baltimore neighborhood hired an armed security guard to patrol the streets.
According to experts, a lot of variables go into the cost of private security but businesses and residents could expect to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars if they want round-the-clock security in a residential or commercial area. The market for armed guards ranges from $50 to $100 an hour. It doesn’t matter what they’re patrolling, the pay is based on the hours.
So whether they’re guarding a commercial street or a residential block, the pay would be the same. Other potential costs include things like a security analysis, vehicle patrols and surveillance. If residents in a community want to hire three armed security guards to patrol their neighborhood 24 hours a day, all year, it could cost over $600,000 a year. That’s just for the hourly pay.
It’s easy to see why poor Black communities, like where Harrison lives, can’t afford that type of service. “It’s affordability. Who has the money to afford private security? It’s going to be commercial properties and people in more affluent neighborhoods,” Joshua Byrd, a vice president at Hawque Protection Group says. “There are private security entities in poor communities but they’re being hired by the businesses. They’re not there to protect the people.”
The type of privatized protection varies. Guards can be armed or unarmed. They’re usually former soldiers or police officers. Sometimes officers work as private security guards while still employed by a police department.
These guards can be used for commercial areas like gas stations, stores or apartment buildings. In New Orleans, several local businesses paid for extra security guards this year in response to crime concerns. In Atlanta, shopping areas in Buckhead employ off-duty cops to discourage people from breaking into places. Business owners in the Bronx, New York, hired private guards to protect a popular shopping stretch in the area.
Rich and Byrd are trying to create a nonprofit arm of their company to collect donations to help provide protection for more vulnerable areas of Atlanta and the other cities where they work. “We’ve gifted free security to certain neighborhoods, but it’s not sustainable,” Rich says.
While cities have tried to turn to more community-led initiatives and other alternatives to address public safety, policing still has a significant role to play in preserving public safety. “I don’t want to speak for my neighborhood, but I think most people here want the police, and they want access to them right away,” Harrison says.
Even if poor neighborhoods were able to afford it, private security officers have limited authority. They cannot investigate crimes or arrest people. Armed guards backed by security companies may patrol, and their visibility is a deterrent to potential criminals. However, there’s not much oversight for security companies.
“Regardless of the flaws, [police officers] have some type of regulation system,” Thaddeus Johnson, a criminology professor at Georgia State University and a senior fellow with the Council on Criminal Justice, says. “There is a mechanism for oversight. In the security industry, you don’t really have that.”
Harrison doesn’t see private security as the answer, but to him, the police haven’t been the answer either. Harrison says it’s at the point where people will just take matters into their own hands. “If I had to choose though, I’d rather be able to rely on the police,” he says. “That’s what our tax dollars are for. We shouldn’t have to pay for private security.”
TheGrio is FREE on your TV via Apple TV, Amazon Fire, Roku and Android TV. Also, please download theGrio mobile apps today!