In Ferguson, while the police and National Guard seemed powerless to protect peaceful citizens from rioters, private organizations stepped in to fill the gap.
Oath Keepers, an organization of former and current military and police agents, spent several nights standing guard over businesses to deter looters. Many of the people they protected seemed grateful. Davis Vo, a restaurant owner, noted, “When they’re here, there’s definitely a weight lifted off of our shoulders.” With looting ongoing, and the National Guard focused on protecting the police command post rather than major commercial areas, many business owners were thankful for extra protection — wherever it came from.
The actions of Oath Keepers are part of a trend of private enterprises competing with police to provide security. Threat Management Center, a private defense firm, protected folks in Detroit when police forces couldn’t. Peacekeeper, a free app, competes with police by enabling people to build a network of friends, family, and neighbors whom they can call on in an emergency. The organization notes that this service can be faster and more customer-centric than calling police.
Rather than embracing the help, police have cracked down on private protection entities. In Ferguson, they threatened Oath Keepers with arrest for operating without a license. Dale Brown, founder of the Threat Management Center, claims that “because the police usually see us as competitors, they are very eager to come after us if we screw up.”
Many private citizens echo this disapproval of organizations that compete with the police. The New York Times, for instance, called Oath Keepers a “militia.” The Daily Mail accused Oath Keepers of being “vigilantes.” When any private entity offers protection services, regardless of the facts of the case, knee-jerk claims are sure to follow.
While it’s important to discourage vigilantism, private protection organizations are not in themselves problematic. Problems arise when these entities abuse their power by harming ordinary citizens instead of acting as a self-defense network. (But this is also true of police.) There are already laws on the books against vigilantism, but collective self-defense remains perfectly legal. Private protection agencies should not be punished just because they might hypothetically do something illegal.
Taking preemptive action against their competitors is precisely what many police departments have done. So far, there are no notable instances of private protection agencies stepping over the line in the recent unrest in Ferguson. Reason writer Jesse Walker notes that he has “not seen any reports of violence either by or against the group's St. Louis patrols.” Local businessmen appreciated the extra security. Police shut down the organization in spite of the good it did for a community in need, and reporters attacked the organization for its actions.
These reactions speak to a broader point about the police: they are one of the few monopolies our society not only tolerates but endorses. In almost every other industry, we recognize the virtues of competition. Walmart is a better company because of competition from Target. Apple and Microsoft both serve us better when they compete for our business than either entity could as a monopoly.
Competition forces organizations to improve their services. A monopolistic entity has no incentive to improve service: customers are stuck using it either way. When competition is introduced, each organization must fight to keep its customers. It must offer them a lower price, better service, or something else to meet their needs better than its competitor can.
Competition also enables freedom of choice among consumers. Apple and Microsoft offer different products. MacBooks are beautiful and less likely to suffer from viruses, whereas Microsoft laptops are typically cheaper and more powerful. Competition lets each consumer choose which of these products best meets his or her needs. One-size-fits-all models defeat this freedom.
It is time that we applied the fundamental lesson of competition to police forces. If private citizens were free to choose between police protection and the services of a private organization like Oath Keepers, police departments would need to step up their game in order to keep their customers. That might lead them to fire more bad cops or strive to answer emergencies faster. Even if that didn’t happen, competition would allow citizens who like being protected by the police to keep that protection, while citizens who want protection from another organization could contract for those services elsewhere. Consumers would win doubly.
Isn’t it time that we embraced a little competition in security?