Police should work more like ride-hail

My friend Brent just visited San Francisco, staying at a nice hotel in SoMa. Unexpected itinerary for Day 1: Filling out police reports and getting a new rental car after a would-be-thief broke his car window. Unexpected itinerary for Day 2: Filling out police reports and getting a new rental car after a would-be-thief broke his second rental car window. The would-be-thieves made off with nothing both times.

Brent is not alone. I had my Mustang broken into when I lived in SoMa, and this year car break-ins in San Francisco have increased 39 percent — 87 percent in the Financial District and SoMa.

Although some are calling to increase spending on police, we should not jump to the conclusion that increasing the size of police bureaucracy is the best option. Salary and benefits for the San Francisco Police Department currently averages $174,799 per officer, and that does not count lifetime pensions given to all police who retire in their 50s at 90 percent of peak-year salary. Increasing the number of police would cost millions. Luckily, a less costly and more customer friendly solution exists.

Many do not know San Francisco actually has one of the longest histories of private policing. Dating back to the days of the Gold Rush and incorporated into the City Charter, a network of independent firms called the Patrol Special Police still patrol certain parts of San Francisco today. They have to go through police training, and historically were fully deputized, but have always been privately financed.

Their clients include neighborhood associations, business improvement districts, individual merchants and others who want more service than that provided by government police. The Patrol Special Police have to work for every dollar so they respond quickly — similar to Uber. Unlike stationary security guards, the Patrol Special Police can patrol multiple properties, so clients can share — like Uber.

A few years ago, when the Glen Park neighborhood saw an increase in crime, community members voluntarily contributed to pay Patrol Special Police Officer Calvin Wiley to spend time doing more foot patrols there. Everyone benefited.

I conducted a study of customers of the Patrol Special Police and asked them why they pay for private police rather than relying on free government police. I asked, “Why did you not simply rely on the SFPD to meet your safety needs?” The answers from different customers included: “They scare me. Trust issues,” “They take too long to arrive,” and “That’s a joke right? I have little confidence in SFPD.”

When I asked them, “Why did you hire a Patrol Special Police officer?” they offered responses including, “Faster service, personal touch,” “Protect our clients and customers,” and “Officers become familiar with the businesses and potential problems.”

Private police have the potential to benefit any neighborhood, especially lower income ones that are typically underserved or poorly served by government police.

But like Uber and Lyft, various forces are conspiring to use laws and regulations to put the Patrol Special Police out of business. Viewed as competition to often lucrative overtime contracts for members of SFPD, the Police Commission has implemented many regulations including making it difficult for the Patrol Special Police to hire new officers. Patrol Special Police have dwindled from 1,000 officers a hundred years ago to just a couple dozen today. But such restrictions will come at the safety of San Franciscans.

In my book “Private Governance: Creating Order in Economic and Social Life,” I describe more details about the history of the Patrol Special Police and describe how they helped solve many problems and make The City what it is today. The choice was never living with more crime versus increasing government bureaucracy, and instead the solution to crime often came from the private sector.

The first solution is to eliminate the ability of the Police Commission to restrict the number of Patrol Special Police Officers. For those worried about safety, one can have various licensing, training and bonding requirements or even full deputization. But the current policy is akin to letting the Taxi Commission or the Mayor of New York say there will be no more Uber and Lyft drivers.

A second policy to consider is to liberalize the existing beat system that restricts where Patrol Special Police can operate. Current policy is akin to saying that residents of certain neighborhoods can only order
a car from one company. As long
as a Patrol Special Police Officer meets the legal requirements of doing the job, the officer need not be restricted from operating in different neighborhoods.

Uber and Lyft have shown the transportation industry can be vastly improved by not having to rely on a government monopoly. Opening up the security market like the transportation market will allow new forms of sharing and innovation that no Taxi Commission or Police Commission could envision.

Edward Peter Stringham is the Davis Endowed Professor of Economic Organizations and Innovation at Trinity College in Connecticut.

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