Privatizing securityMichigan law enables executives to privatize security

Published 23 March 2011

Michigan’s new Emergency Manager law, in addition to allowing previously negotiated union contracts to be voided, gives appointees the authority to privatize police services and jails; some are worried that the rush to cut police labor costs will impair public safety; critics say that savings from privatization are illusory

In addition to allowing previously negotiated union contracts to be voided, Michigan’s new Emergency Manager law gives appointees the authority to privatize police services and jails.

Indeed, voiding labor contracts and outsourcing government services is a key aspect of how they are expected to balance the budgets of financially stressed towns.

“Certain functions of police work, such as jails, can easily be privatized,” said Louis Schimmel, executive administrator for the city of Warren.

Schimmel has deep experience with applying private sector solutions to economically struggling towns. In 1986 he was appointed receiver for the city of Ecorse, where his efforts to cut costs through privatization were dubbed by the Mackinac Center, “a major, although tentative victory for market forces.”

As emergency financial manager in Hamtramck from 2000-2006, Schimmel sold off the Dept. of Public Works.

Schimmel said that Warren is considering following the example of Sterling Heights, which contracted out the management of its jail last year. Sterling Heights replaced the police officers at their jail with the Danish private security company G4S— once known as Wackenhut.

Schimmel said that a lack of private sector alternatives makes it difficult to privatize whole police departments but communities can consolidate services and costs with neighboring municipalities or purchase services from the county.

This is underway in the city of Pontiac, where the police, under pressure from emergency financial manager Michael Stampfler, voted to dissolve their union in expectation that some would be hired on by the Oakland County Sheriff’s Dept.

Some are worried that the rush to cut police labor costs will impair public safety.

According to Michigan Association of Police Chiefs executive director Tom Hendrickson, there is no requirement for minimum level of police services in Michigan communities. “There could be literally no police,” he said.

Privately run jails and prisons have created controversy around the country as they have become more common. A report from the Sentencing Project says that cost savings from privatization are illusory:

Research to date has concluded that there is little evidence that privatization of prisons results in significant public savings. In a 1996 General Accounting Office (GAO) review of several comparative studies on private versus public prisons, researchers acknowledged, “because the studies reported little difference and/or mixed results in comparing private and public facilities, we could not conclude whether privatization saved money.”


A study by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA) released in 2001 had similar conclusions, stating that “rather than the projected 20-percent savings, the average saving from privatization was only 1 percent” and that “the promises of 20-percent savings in operational costs have simply not materialized.”

Critics also argue that private jails and prisons have significantly more safety problems, including escape attempts, and assaults on guards and other inmates.

More problematic is the BJA study’s further assertion that “the rate of major incidents is higher at private facilities than at public facilities.” A survey of the prison industry conducted by analyst James Austin also found 49 percent more inmate on staff assaults and 65 percent more inmate on inmate assaults occurred in private minimum and medium security facilities than in comparable publicly run facilities.

Michigan Association of Police executive director Fred Timpner said he feels it is important to maintain public control of policing.

Regardless of the practicalities, however, Hendrickson argues that privatizing police work will put a crucial public function under the control of corporations and take us back to a time few would like to revisit.

“[E]arly police or sheriff’s (sic) in England were the feudal lords army,” he said via e-mail. “As a result they were controlled by the local nobility. Abuse was rampant. To this day in Europe there is fear of a private police force … they are mercenaries.”