An investigation by the Washington Post has revealed that the ranks of "private police" officers—ordinary citizens who have petitioned courts for the power to carry a gun and badge and make arrests within certain areas—are growing throughout the country, thanks to a little-known provision in state laws.
But training and oversight for private police, which in many states consists of a total of 40 hours of 'instruction' left to the discretion of supervisors, is not sufficient to grant those officers those privileges, critics charge. As the Post points out, private police—also known as "special conservators of the peace" (SCOPs)—are in some states regulated far less stringently than are many other professions, including cosmetologists.
The Post reports:
The growth is mirrored nationally in the ranks of private police, who increasingly patrol corporate campuses, neighborhoods and museums as the demand for private security has increased and police services have been cut in some places.
The trend has raised concerns in Virginia and elsewhere, because these armed officers often receive a small fraction of the training and oversight of their municipal counterparts. Arrests of private police officers and incidents involving SCOPs overstepping their authority have also raised concerns.
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The Virginia legislature passed a bill Friday raising SCOP training hours from 40 to 130, but even that increase is significantly lower than the 580 to 1,200 hours required for municipal police officers, and lower still than the training hours necessary to become a nail technician, an auctioneer, or a security guard, the Post writes. Despite not belonging to any law enforcement agency, SCOPs in states such as Virginia may legally call themselves police officers and use flashing lights, two issues which remain contentious among critics.
Moreover, as a 2012 study published in the West Virginia Law Journal discovered, SCOPs throughout the country are "chronically undertrained," while state regulations "inadequately protect against the threat posed by the private policing industry."
In one incident highlighted by the Post, a parking dispute in 2009 in Newport News, Virginia ended with two SCOPs boxing in and drawing their guns on a woman, her friend, and their children as they sat in the woman's car.
Meanwhile, a $25 million lawsuit filed in the Cherry Hill neighborhood of Baltimore, Maryland in 2012 alleged that a Cleveland-based private police company "abused residents and violated their civil rights by stopping them illegally and making false arrests."