The 'Facebook Cop' and the Implications of Privatized Policing

Is the law applied evenly when a company foots the bill?

Mike Blake/Reuters

When I read, early last week, about the police officer whose salary is currently being paid by Facebook, I was suspicious. The tech company agreed to pay the officer’s salary and benefits, which totaled roughly $200,000, even though she’s officially part of a government organization, the Menlo Park Police Department. “It's not the 'Facebook officer,’” a company spokesperson insisted in the Wall Street Journal article. “It's the officer for the whole community.” While the officer’s duties seemed innocuous enough—she works with truants and juvenile offenders, and helps local businesses like Facebook plan for emergencies—something about a private company funding a cop didn’t sit well with me.

The sources the Journal interviewed didn’t exactly allay any of my concerns. The paper's reporter, Zusha Elinson, talked to a resident of the neighborhood that the officer patrols, who suspected that endowing a cop had to do with Facebook’s desire to straighten out a traditionally lower-income, higher-crime area as it made plans to expand its headquarters to include dorm-like dwellings for employees. Elinson also spoke to a police ethicist, who posed the question that cut to the core of my concern: If you’re the chief of the Menlo Park Police Department, "what do you tell your officers about how to treat people who work at Facebook?"

I voiced my concerns to John DeCarlo, an associate professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, to assess how reasonable they were. DeCarlo, who was a police officer for 34 years before joining John Jay’s faculty, said some things that validated my worries and others that undercut them. “If I were a company, and I was funding a police department, I would ultimately want things to go the way I wanted them to go,” he reasons. “I don’t see that there’s accountability to the public built into private companies…We don’t even know what their political agenda is.” In short, it’s important to make sure they won’t be beholden to whoever’s furnishing them with money. That said, DeCarlo pointed out that the practice, which the Journal called “unusual,” isn’t all that foreign. Police officers are frequently hired by nongovernmental organizations like water companies and shopping malls, yet they’re granted many of the same powers as when they're working for municipal departments.

Though the practice is already common, it will become even more so in the future. “With municipal pensions being the issue that they are, and governmental funding and taxes going the way they are, we are going to see a trend in the United States toward more privatization in policing than less,” he says.

Understanding the trend of oncoming privatization requires understanding the origins of policing. The word “sheriff,” DeCarlo told me, dates back to the Middle Ages, when wealthy landowners hired groups of men to keep the peace in their villages, then known as shires. These bands reported to a reeve, or leader, known as the “shire reeve”—two words that over time fused into “sheriff.” From then until the late 1800s, policing remained a private undertaking. It was only after London established the first metropolitan police department in 1863 that the idea of a public police force caught on in the United States. “The roots of policing are really private,” DeCarlo says.

In the past 150 years or so, policing has mostly been (and has been mostly perceived as) a public endeavor—but that’s been changing. DeCarlo points to a number of ways in which the private sphere has bled into public policing. The doormen and security guards employed by private security companies (who can, for the record, carry guns), for example, talk on police radios with municipal policemen. Also, the rise of what DeCarlo calls “mass private spaces”—think malls—has led the owners of said spaces to employ private forces to patrol them, since public police departments don’t. DeCarlo has also observed that the dispatch centers routing 911 calls are run more and more often by private companies.

But the most lucrative privatized policing jobs are also the ones that are the most ingrained in the municipal police system. They’re what DeCarlo calls “private duty jobs.” These jobs, which are often arranged through police departments, send officers in municipal uniforms to work for private contractors, like when a cop stands over an uncovered manhole as workers descend, or when a cop stands guard at a movie theater. These jobs can pay as much as $50 an hour, which means that the average entry-level cop—who, DeCarlo estimates, might make a little more than $40,000 a year—can almost double his or her income by regularly working private duty jobs. “When I was chief of police, I was maybe the lowest-paid guy in the department,” DeCarlo says, “because all the other officers, the rank and file officers, were taking…private duty jobs.”

The law currently treats private security forces differently than it does municipal ones. Whereas governmental police can’t barge into your house and search it without first obtaining a warrant, private security forces are free to do so.  “Private police don’t have to observe…the Fourth Amendment…because they are not the government,” DeCarlo says. In order to get state accreditation (which can bestow the right to carry guns and the ability to receive state funding), municipal police departments must agree to, among other things, be accountable to the Bill of Rights; independently funded police departments, he told me, don't have the same obligations because they don't answer to that accreditation process. They can carry guns whether they follow the Bill of Rights or not.

From this vantage, Facebook’s arrangement with the Menlo Park Police Department looks squarely kosher: As a member of a municipal department, the endowed officer is held accountable to the Constitution in the same way as any other municipal officer. With this resolved, I felt a little more at ease about Facebook’s gift to the city.

But there was another thread of the Journal article that seemed to go unexamined. As Facebook defended itself from accusations that it would expect special treatment from the officer, it offered as a counter-argument the fact that the company had its own security team (the implication being that they have plenty of special treatment as it is, thank you very much). Menlo Park’s mayor called Facebook’s property “a fortress,” and the company noted that its security forces are led by—in what was likely a smooth transition from public work to private work—someone who used to work in the Secret Service.

* * *

Not too long ago, I graduated from a college located in Philadelphia. That school, the University of Pennsylvania, is in the neighborhood of West Philadelphia, though the pocket of the neighborhood it occupies is referred to as University City. Within University City, there’s tweed, worn unironically. There’s ivy.

Just blocks away from any given border of University City, the buildings and the people look very different, and are generally far poorer. Because of the threat posed by these people to students, the university stations its own guards on practically every corner of University City. When I asked a friend a couple of days ago about his perception of the University of Pennsylvania Police Department, he said that the first word that came to his mind was “ubiquity.”

Over the course of four years walking the city blocks monitored by these guards, I noticed that they enforced the law in a curious way. On nights and weekends, hordes of students would stumble across University City’s sidewalks (and sometimes through its streets), some sloshing alcohol around in red plastic cups. Students would stream past the guards as they shrugged off the local laws prohibiting them from drinking on a sidewalk. Rarely did anyone overseeing the situation seem to mind. Sometimes, though, I would notice, as a member of one of those hordes, these private officers talking to people—presumably flagged as non-University City residents based on their estimated socioeconomic status—slumped on the sidewalk with bottles of alcohol in their laps. They were frequently scolded and told to go elsewhere.

With my status as student, I never had to pay these guards much mind, and from the beginning of my time in college I assumed they were there to assuage the fears of people who were about to pay to send their children to a mass private space in a new city. Now, I see them more as a group paid in a way that leads them to apply the law unevenly. Through all of this, I don’t think I was ever entirely wrong.

* * *

In all likelihood, the cop Facebook is funding will likely exert a positive force on the area, checking in on wayward kids and improving emergency evacuation procedures.

The part about the story that might actually be worrying—and that appears to be on its way to becoming the rule rather than the exception—is that, as I saw in college, private entities whose objectives diverge from the public's can apply the law as they see fit. Who does Facebook's security team pay attention to? Who do they ignore?