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Public officers pan private police force plan

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Michigan law enforcement groups on Tuesday panned a new Senate plan to that would allow businesses, schools or other entities to contract with private security police forces that could carry weapons and make misdemeanor arrests.

The legislation could “de-professionalize” policing, reduce transparency and create a system where public safety services could vary depending on the wealth or resources of private entities, critics said.

But sponsoring Sen. Mike Kowall, R-White Lake, said he’ll invite police to a work group in hopes of improving legislation that advanced out of the Government Operations Committee in a 4-1 vote. His bill is a second effort after a private policing bill last year drew similarly harsh criticism.

“The main intent is getting more law enforcement on the ground in areas where there isn’t any available,” Kowall said.

Senate Bill 924 would expand a 1968 law that allows entities to create their own private police agencies, giving them the option to instead contract with a third-party vendor for the service.

The Detroit Medical Center, Detroit school district, General Motors Co. and the Henry Ford Health System are among 13 entities that already operate private security police agencies in Michigan.

Public law enforcement groups say expanding the law to third-party contractors heightens concerns over transparency, accountability and logistics.

“Under this law, any apartment complex could have their own private policing,” said Bob Stevenson, a retired Livonia police chief now with the Michigan Association of Chiefs of Police.

“We don’t need the George Zimmermans of this world involved in my profession,” he said, referencing a Florida neighborhood watch captain who fatally shot a 17-year-old African American in 2012.

The Michigan State Police testified against the bill, urging lawmakers to more clearly specify that private police officers would be required to complete the same training as public officers. Other law enforcement groups said the 1968 law the proposal would change is a relic in need of a larger overhaul.

The legislation would allow contracted police officers to make misdemeanor arrests, but “what happens after that arrest?” asked Blaine Koops of the Michigan Sheriffs’ Association. He raised questions about who would be responsible for transporting detainees to the county jail, and who would prosecute them.

Stevenson said the legislation also would create confusion over who has primary jurisdiction at a crime scene within an area patrolled by a private police force.

“As we all know, there’s a one-time opportunity to accurately collect evidence,” he said. “Is their qualification they’ve watched two seasons of ‘CSI’?”

Private police forces are not subject to public records requests under the Freedom of Information Act or important constitutional requirements, said Kimberly Buddin of the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan.

“Private companies have little obligation to protect constitutional rights to free speech, association or privacy,” Buddin said. “Requirements regarding probable cause for lawful detention, lawful search and seizures, Miranda warnings prior to interrogation or parameters for use of force also do not apply to private entities.”

The proposal would prohibit municipalities or counties from contracting with private police forces, but would allow the option for most other legally organized entities, including corporations, associations, foundations, not -for-profits and school districts.

Kowall said he plans to work more on the legislation before any floor vote in the Senate and may develop separate legislation address other law enforcement concerns.

“We don’t want to violate anybody’s constitutional rights, but at the same time, you know, we want to keep people safe,” Kowall said.