Is Downtown’s Private Security Worth The Cost?

Downtown Detroit is patrolled by private security, but it is not clear anyone is watching over them.

Some people who work in downtown Detroit say the Campus Martius area feels much safer as of late. Particularly since Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures employed private security to patrol the area. But some residents and downtown workers say private security teams aren’t being transparent about their tactics.

Police are a public agency, which means they are also accountable to the public and there are tools to obtain information about their actions, such as Freedom of Information requests, when they are not forthcoming. The same can not be said about private security forces as Nancy Kaffer of the Detroit Free Press learned when she requested information about Rock Ventures downtown private security, other corporations did comply with her request.

“That is part of what we associate with a public agency, is that need for public accountability,” says Kaffer, “And that is one of the differences between this public and private policing operations.”

WDET’s senior news editor Quinn Klinefelter ran afoul of private security downtown a few years years ago. Klinefelter says that he was near Campus Martius speaking with a homeless friend when two private security guards approached them and told them they had to clear the sidewalk. When he questioned them, Klinefelter says the guards said they were working with permission of the City Council and with the Detroit Police Department. Klinefelter could find no evidence of that relationship between the private security team and the city.

“And I asked [the Police Department] ‘Are you guys working with the security people, are they actually able to use police powers in such a situation?’ And the person on the phone who knew me fairly well said ‘No’,” he says. “They said ‘The next time that happens to you again you call us immediately and we will send an officer down there and arrest them for impersonating a police officer.'”

Kaffer says it’s important to make sure downtown is a safe place, but she worries allowing private agencies to develop policies impacting public space. In areas such as Campus Martius, which is largely privately owned, private security has more power to shut down activities such as political speeches and protesting.

Kaffer says there’s generally no way to know if a private security team goes too far with a patron, unless they self-report.

“How do we know they haven’t done anything? It’s a private company, there’s no accountability,” says Kaffer.

Detroit Today host Stephen Henderson writes:

Last Friday, I met some friends for a drink after work at a bar near where I live downtown.

It was packed, as it has been since it opened recently. And it was filled, mostly, with young professionals.

A man came in, looking disheveled, maybe a little drunk. And he started asking patrons for money.

The bouncer moved swiftly to tell the man he couldn’t stay – and so he left.

A few minutes later, when I was outside taking a phone call, the man was still there – but now he was flanked on either side by two security guards. I didn’t see their badges, but based on where we were, they were probably working for Dan Gilbert’s Rock Ventures.

They were both armed, and they were telling the disheveled man that he couldn’t stay on the sidewalk outside the bar. He needed to move on – or they were going to call police.

I remember the disheveled man saying something back to the guards, but he didn’t dally. He walked away – and the guards watched him until he turned off Woodward.

Now, technically, this is probably the way things should work, right? You can’t panhandle in a bar.

And you can’t loiter outside, waiting for patrons to come out. Whatever social norms we might wish were different, there’s no good reason for Detroit – unlike other cities – to tolerate nuisance behavior.

But the security guards had confronted this man on a public sidewalk – not in a private establishment. And that’s typically the realm of public policing – officers who work for all of us, and serve and protect according to publicly accountable standards.

That’s where we may have a problem in Detroit.

As Nancy Kaffer wrote this past weekend in the Detroit Free Press, Rock Ventures won’t disclose who its security guards are, how they’re trained, or what they’re doing – even though anyone who’s been downtown in the last few years knows they are involved in policing activities in public spaces. Other businesses that have private security forces – blue cross, DTE – were perfectly willing to discuss what they’re doing. But Rock said “we simply don’t provide details about our security processes and protocols as a matter of overall safety and security.”

Privacy, to ensure security, in a public space.

Public activity, private force.

Are we courting disaster? Are we permitting sacrificing public accountability for security?