Don't experiment with public safety

If there's a crime occurring in your neighborhood, or a drunken driver careening through it, whom do you want to respond?

Someone from City Hall? A private security guard who can't make traffic stops, can't pursue fleeing suspects and can use a weapon only in self-defense?

Not likely. With rare exceptions, citizens expect professional law enforcement on the scene as soon as possible when life, property or a community is threatened.

But as the year comes to a close, two small Minnesota towns are on the verge of launching dubious public safety experiments that seem destined to fail these basic citizen expectations.

In central Minnesota, the Benton County seat of Foley, population 2,600, is moving to replace sheriff's deputies assigned to patrol its streets with private security guards.

In the Anoka County community of Nowthen, population 4,400, the City Council has voted against paying for patrols by the sheriff's department. Like other nearby communities that do pay for sheriff's patrols, Nowthen doesn't have a city police department.

Unless a compromise is reached, Anoka deputies will "not respond to calls for burglaries, thefts, barking dogs, routine traffic accidents or property disputes" in Nowthen, according to a Dec. 14 Star Tribune story. Callers contacting the sheriff about these issues will apparently be directed to Nowthen's City Hall.

Instead of swallowing the there's-nothing-we-can-do austerity claptrap from local politicians, the citizens of Foley and Nowthen ought to be asking why their towns' leaders are playing games with public safety.

For centuries, this has been considered one of the most critical responsibilities of local government, a key reason generations of political leaders have shielded it during previous economic downturns.

Foley and Nowthen citizens should also be alarmed that these small communities are bucking warnings from leading Minnesota law enforcement officials and are pioneering this on their own.

Foley has garnered national news headlines for its nearly unprecedented decision to replace city patrols with services from Minnesota-based General Security Services Corp. (GSSC), which didn't respond to a request for comment this week.

The company is generally well-regarded for the security services it provides to various businesses and institutions. Its website proclaims that it is the "service representative of the year" for HOM Furniture and the "official security provider" for the Minnesota Twins.

It's fine to rely on GSSC employees at these venues. But hiring them essentially as a municipal police force is problematic, particularly when the city isn't going to save all that much money by doing so ($40,000 to $60,000 annually).

The firm also has never provided full municipal-style service like this, according to a USA Today article.

In a long letter to Foley Mayor Gary Gruba, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson warned against privatizing the city's patrols. Swanson pointed out that a New Jersey municipality about the same size as Foley tried this in the 1990s and the situation ended poorly.

Among the problems reported in a journal article about it: Some of the guards hired had minor criminal records -- assault was a common offense -- and they returned a knife to someone suspected of assault.

Swanson, who worries that other cities may look at similar arrangements, also pointed out that safety could be compromised because of the limitations Minnesota law places on private guards. She added that the city could be liable if guards exceed their authority.

The private forcewould have the power to make citizens' arrests only and could use firearms only in self-defense.

Its members could not pursue fleeing suspects, bust people for drunken driving or make routine traffic stops -- a situation that already has local high school kids "licking their chops" about speeding through town, according to one Foley resident.

Those who want to drink and drive must be doing the same.

Mayor Gruba said the security firm has well-trained employees and that Swanson's concerns are influenced by union political interests. Gruba also said he's sick and tired of the media "bashing" the idea and misquoting him.

Swanson's office tried to mediate a solution between the city and the Benton County sheriff's office. Foley, however, is in the final stages of contracting with GSSC. Nowthen has a Dec. 28 meeting planned with the Anoka County sheriff. Hopefully, a compromise can be reached.

Recent shootings in Grand Marais and Lake City are a reminder that serious crime happens even in peaceful rural communities. Foley and Nowthen shouldn't compromise on the protection citizens deserve.

Star Tribune
Article Publish Date: 
December 27, 2011