In addition to San Francisco's roughly 2,500 sworn police officers, the city is watched over by another dozen "Patrol Specials" - private guards who are funded by local businesses and individuals but regulated by the city's Police Commission.
Now, however, that 160-year-old San Francisco tradition is threatened. The city's Office of the Controller this month released a report that calls for the city to sever ties with these private police, who have been legally enshrined in the city charter since the Gold Rush.
Most problematic, the auditors found, is that the Patrol Specials frequently violate the rules set out by the city, operating as sworn officers without the authority to do so. As the report puts it:
The study revealed strong support of Patrol Specials by their clients, who perceive a gap between the operation of Patrol Specials and services provided by public policing operations. While Patrol Specials are popular with the community, research revealed that the Patrol Specials routinely ignored the rules set by the Police Commission, including failure to wear the proper uniform, failure to provide client lists, and failure to maintain proper certifications.
The police commission is slated to discuss the matter during an upcoming meeting.
With the notable exception of some libertarians, police protection is generally viewed as solely a government function. The arrangement is straightforward. Taxpayers fund their local police department. Police officers then become responsible for public safety in all parts of their jurisdiction, with all in the community protected equally.
Among the chief arguments supporting the Patrol Specials’ continued use in San Francisco is that taxpayers aren’t paying for the services. This could prove particularly persuasive during times like these, when California police agencies have relied on federal stimulus money to keep their forces intact. San Francisco received more than $16 million in 2009 [PDF] to pay 50 officers’ salaries.
Last December, the Independent Institute produced a study [PDF] that argued the Patrol Specials are very beneficial. The report's countervailing argument continues:
Their services, which private clients pay for, provide spillover benefits to anyone who desires to keep San Francisco safe. In this way, private clients whose main interest may be improving their personal or business safety are intentionally or inadvertently providing benefits to their entire block or neighborhood. Another important and interesting feature of the [Patrol Specials] is that they do not drain municipal budgets, but are funded by private clients who want to keep their neighborhoods, places of business, and properties safe.
But the private guards are not entirely free, according to the city controller. The San Francisco Fire Department spends $300,000 a year to provide the Patrol Specials with training.