By Bridget Conley-Zilkic & Lauren Spink

While the precise details last night’s shooting of a young black man, Vonderrit Myers Jr. (18 years old), by a policeman in St. Louis, Missouri are still emerging, the events immediately triggered multiple causes for concern. This incident, like the August shooting of Michael Brown in the nearby town of Ferguson, raises ugly questions about race relations in the United States that require serious and sustained address. We engage in these questions as fellow members of this society.

Our scholarly concern, however, was provoked by one detail in today’s story: the fact that the police officer was off-duty working for a private security firm when the incident occurred. News reports indicate that the officer had the approval of his department for this position and that he was wearing his police uniform while patrolling for a for-profit security company

Given public police salaries and private demand for security guards, it is not an unusual occurrence that police officers would take second jobs with corporations or work for hire at private functions. The practice can be as innocuous as hiring police to handle traffic issues that arise from a block party. For instance, you can hire a policeman for a private function in Olathe, Kansas by filling out a simple form.

But there are always consequences; some obvious ones are when, for example, a conflict of interest arises between private contacts and public duty, or if funds from secondary sources are inappropriately channeled through police departments.

If we turn our attention to national security institutions, we find different patterns of privatization but similar issues. At the national level, privatization of security works in the opposite direction: rather than public officials acting for private firms, you have private firms taking on official activities. And while the complications are similar, the implications in terms of application of force can be much greater.

Privatizing the US security sector occurs at almost every level: it includes analysts and staff in the defense and intelligence headquarters in Washington, DC as well as overseas in positions of logistical support, weapons maintenance, boots on the ground during military operations, interrogation, training of foreign military forces, and translation. In an analysis of US Special Operations Command (USSOCOM) spending, it becomes clear that, “Corporations are integrated into every stage of [security operations], from input to output, via translation, storage, accessibility, analysis and communication.”

Within the US, a 2010 estimate places the number of private companies working on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security, and intelligence, at 1,931. Bloomberg Industries analysis estimates that 70% of the US intelligence budget is contracted out.

There are obviously some understandable reason why this occurs. Two reasons often put forward are expertise and flexibility.

In some cases, the United States government may find that in order to staff some of the brightest or most experienced minds, it has no choice but to hire employees through private companies.   Private companies offer higher salaries and attract talent. To access this talent, the US government is then left with little choice but to contract to private companies at higher rates than they pay their permanent workforce.

Private contractors can be hired more quickly than permanent staff and let go just as easily. There is a perception that private military companies function more efficiently and cheaply than government forces. However, it turns out that this perception is incorrect.   US senate reports have shown that employees hired through contractors may cost the US government twice the rate of directly hired employees.   In overseas operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, an independent congressional commission reported that waste and fraud led to an estimated loss of between $31 billion and $60 billion which amounts to a loss of, “about $12 million every day, for the past 10 years.” The report states that it believes this is a conservative estimate.

Beyond the direct financial loss due to fraud, the US government also stands to lose public confidence of the US people in its ability to appropriately allocate defense spending and an international loss of prestige due to the corruption of and mismanagement by private contractors, acting in the field, on behalf of the US government.

This loss of confidence in forces operating under the US flag is not limited to cases of fraud and bribery. Private military companies employed on US contracts have been implicated in a number of human rights abuses including torture at Abu Ghraib and the preemptive shooting of civilians.

In 2007, the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform reported that in their operations in Afghanistan and Iraq since 2005, of 195 incidents in which Blackwater had discharged firearms, 84% occurred with Blackwater firing first.

Fraud and human rights abuses committed by private military contractors on behalf of the US government raise the issue of accountability and oversight of these contractors. While US law does provide for jurisdiction and prosecution of private military contractors, there has been little prosecution to date.

Corporations have found a role for themselves to make a profit providing a wide range of security services. This business model is becoming more prominent as the number of private military contractors increases and is applied in new situations—developing countries unable to provide security through a state military are employing private groups (Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Somalia) and there has been discussion of including private forces in United Nations peace keeping missions.

Between the situations in St. Louis and Iraq, Somalia or Afghanistan there are enormous differences. But the thread that connects them is the overall corrosion of the state’s “monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force.” When policemen are paid through their departments for private functions, wear their uniforms and kill someone while working on private payroll, the core institutions of public safety are undermined. The same is true when the U.S. hires guns to conduct “enhanced interrogation” – torture; guard its embassies; and represent its policies overseas.

Sometimes the private security model is developed with scrutiny, accountability, and financial and ethical integrity. Sometimes it is not. We question whether, regardless of the benefits or flaws of its implementation, if the practice per se raises serious questions for both domestic and international democratic institutions, particularly when lethal violence is exerted. We should ask: How does the privatization of security alter the role and function of both the state and the corporation?

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