Meekhof pushes private police forces under new plan

Jonathan Oosting

Lansing — Michigan would authorize a new class of private and potentially for-profit police agencies with full arrest powers under legislation proposed and pushed by Senate Majority Leader Arlan Meekhof.

The West Olive Republican took testimony on his two-bill package Tuesday in the Senate Government Operations Committee, where he and other supporters argued private forces could supplement public law enforcement agencies and free them to focus on high-impact crime.

The legislation would allow corporations, associations, school districts and other entities to contract with private police agencies to provide services for a specific time and in a specific geographic area.

“There is a challenge and a problem in law enforcement,” said former Grand Rapids Police Chief Harry Dolan, who now runs a consulting firm in North Carolina, which allows private police forces.

“We are working with fewer resources and are facing a greater need than ever before. The proposal before you is a common-sense and financially prudent response to that problem.”

But the legislation was panned by current law enforcement officials, who said they were concerned by proposed transparency and training requirements. A private officer would not have to undergo a background check if he or she were licensed by the state as a law enforcement officer within the previous two years, they noted.

“At some level, it feels like we’re creating a Blackwater for police in the state of Michigan,” said Howell Police Chief George Basar, a past president for the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police. “It almost feels like we’re putting together a mercenary force to police in some of our communities.”

Meekhof called Basar’s comments “out of line,” pointing to various accountability standards proposed in the legislation. He said it would build on a 1968 state law allowing private security police agencies with limited misdemeanor arrest authority.

Michigan has licensed 14 private agencies under the old law, including forces run by the Detroit Medical Center, Henry Ford Health System, Detroit Public Schools and General Motors Co.

Meekhof declined to tell reporters who is pushing for the new legislation, which would open the door to additional private police agencies with broader arrest powers, saying that is “not public information yet.”

The Michigan Legislature is not subject to public records requests under the state Freedom of Information Act. Critics questioned whether the private police forces would also be exempt, but Meekhof said it is his intent they would be subject to the public disclosure law and indicated he is willing to change the legislation to ensure that is the case.

The top lawmaker in the GOP-led Senate said “a number of people” are asking for the private police force legislation, including corporations, homeowners associations and large condominium complexes.

Kimberly Buddin, policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, raised a number of legal concerns with the proposal and told legislators it would “exacerbate inequality” in access to public safety.

“We should not pass legislation that is going to determine a community’s public safety based solely on what they’re able to afford,” she said. “Instead, we should be investing more in our law enforcement agencies, to more training, to more officers and to allowing the officers that are doing this work to do it better rather than outsourcing this to private agencies.”

Supporters said private police agencies could provide services at malls or other large retail areas where there is a high propensity of low-level crimes, such as shoplifting, stolen cars or minor traffic collisions.

“Special police typically augment, not replace, existing police,” said Ron Taylor of Blue Ridge Public Safety, a private force in North Carolina. “Special police typically handle matters that, while important, often drain the resources of regular police agencies.”

Meekhof did not call for a vote on the proposal or set a date for a second hearing, but he said he personally sponsored the bills and referred them to his own committee for a reason.

“It either comes here to get done or it comes here to die,” he said of legislation before the Government Operations Committee. “I’m going to find a way to get this done.”