This is something that is happening in several cities — sometimes in small ways, sometimes in larger more coordinated ways. When city governments and/or police fail to protect neighborhoods from problems created by illegal homeless camps, including garbage and blight, drug dealing, crime, — sometimes neighbors will step up and try to solve some problems on their own. This is certainly not ideal, and could be dangerous, as it puts both sides at risk — homeless are at risk from overreaching vigilante type actions, and neighbors are at risk from violent or criminal or mentally ill homeless.
However, given the amount of catastrophic failure by some cities to prevent serious problems caused by illegal homeless camps from eroding quality of life in many neighborhoods, it should come as no surprise that fed-up communities are organizing to try to attend to some of the problems themselves.
Two examples of this happening are in New Orleans, in the French Quarter area, where “gutter punks” are creating a great nuisance in commercial districts, as well as in Portland, in the Montavilla Park neighborhood.
In New Orleans,
Sidney Torres IV is a property developer and reality television star with a fondness for making deals. But unlike a similar figure in the White House, Torres is not elected to any political office.
Instead, Torres, who was a millionaire by age 23, has used his money to start his own private police force in the historic French Quarter in New Orleans — one of several such “vigilante” groups bankrolled by businessmen to spring up in US cities in recent years.
The French Quarter Task Force uses off-duty uniformed police employed at premium wages. Residents and visitors report crime via an app.
“I started this out of need,” the 43-year-old says from his New Orleans office, where walls are adorned with framed newspaper clippings of his exploits.
In 2015, Torres — who is known for his real estate advice in the reality show The Deed — says his home in the French Quarter was robbed, and a friend of his mother’s was assaulted on the street. When the mayor did not return his call, he decided to take action.
“I did a commercial to put residents on air who were robbed and beat up to let people see them visually. I knew [the mayor] would see these and pick up the phone and call me.”
The French Quarter Task Force says it is a neighbourhood watch program, not a vigilante group. But its emergence speaks to a wider trend of private police forces maintained by wealthy individuals in cities across America, existing in grey areas of the law.
“Private police forces aren’t governed by the constitution — and that makes them in my opinion quite dangerous,” says constitutional lawyer and Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead.
“They get a free pass, and that’s a scary thing. The law is lagging far behind.”
The American Council for Civil Liberties says that private forces are not subject to Freedom of Information laws, meaning that they are not required to disclose information about their operations.
Police statistics show property crime has risen in the neighborhood in the last three years. In July, Portland Police Assn. President Daryl Turner called Portland a “cesspool” and criticized elected officials for their response to homelessness. Turner said Portland police are “catastrophically” understaffed.
Users write of taking justice in their own hands, or using drones with video capability to observe local camps — something two homeless interviewees said does occur.
As the first article indicates, other “private security forces” are set up in Detroit and around the Facebook campus.
In 2010, businessman Dan Gilbert moved his company Quicken Loans to Detroit, where 80 per cent of the residents are black and 35 per cent live in poverty. As the city was sliding into bankruptcy as a result of the 2007 financial crisis, Mr Gilbert was installing his own security apparatus to protect his substantial investments in the city.
A man point at a red dot on a map of New Orleans.
PHOTO French Quarter Task Force operations manager Robert Simms points out crime locations on a map
In the 20-square-kilometre downtown area surrounding his company’s headquarters, Mr Gilbert has erected 500 high-powered telescopic cameras, employing private security contractors to monitor the streets and cross-coordinate with Detroit’s police databases.
Other cities around the country are following suit. Facebook recently paid for a police substation near its business campus in San Francisco, while one 2016 report said that in Washington DC, 120 private companies employed 16,580 law enforcement agents.
Other private security forces exist around the nation to deter crime, often crime related to the homeless and their camps. In Denver, this article indicated that for the private security force there, they estimated 60 to 70% of their work involved homeless related issues.
In Seattle too, as stated in this article, homeowners were fed up with “blatant lawlessness”, have hired their own security force.
For Angie Gerrald, crime in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood has reached a new low. From illegally parked RVs to open drug deals, the longtime resident sees piles of used needles on her routine runs, she said, and other problems she says police sometimes ignore.
“The blatant lawlessness has been a whole new era” this past year, Gerrald said. “There is so little response — so little they [police] can and will do about it.”
More than one SEattle neighborhood has organized a security patrol:
Magnolia launched its own patrol program in December, the latest Seattle neighborhood to organize and pay for extra security, and now some Queen Anne residents are making plans to start a program.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray unveiled a plan on Tuesday to dedicate two parking areas for dozens of people living in RVs and other vehicles, a move that follows outcry from some Ballard residents over crime around the vehicles near their homes.
The problem often comes down to lack of police resources to keep up with all the service calls:
Brad Renton, president of the Whittier Heights Patrol Association, started his surveillance service about a year ago after repeatedly “hearing the same old lies” about the police department’s plans to boost manpower, he said.
“SPD is a wonderful group of guys. They’re just getting overwhelmed,” he said. “You’d like them to be there for you, and they are there, but they have to be there for the important stuff,” not necessarily nonviolent crimes.
The patrol project came into motion after Renton heard residents’ complaints over poor police-response times to nonviolent crimes — symptoms of an overworked department and lack of resources to keep pace with demand, Renton said.
Similarly in Longmont Colorado, concerns about nuisance and crime associated with homelessness led to a private security force put into action there.
I view all of this as tied to the political trends which, on the one hand, have led to de-valuation of the police, and on the other, have led to an increasing tolerance for serious blight and nuisance in neighborhoods caused by illegal homeless camps.
A few incidents of police brutality that have been heavily overemphasized, and the misguided perception that there is more police misconduct in relation to black and minority populations) has led to suspicions of the police, the desire to restrict police powers, and even the loss of understanding that police are simply community representatives, there to protect the safety and security of the community as a whole.
The way police are referred to in some quarters shows a growing seriously distorted and utlimately anti-social perception that police are more of a problem to communities than criminals are, or that police, rather than doing the will of the people as expressed in laws passed by the whole society, are more of a racist vigilante force in themselves, not interested in enforcing laws or keeping peace but in harassing and brutalizing black and Hispanic males.
When views of the police become so distorted, and when these distortions begin to make their way into city government and result in city leaders hamstringing their police force and preventing them from adequately enforcing the law, I think it should come as no surprise when citizens start taking it upon themselves to protect their own communities.
As well, a large number of cities have utterly failed to curb or even come up with any plan to reduce the nuisance and crime that stem from illegal homeless camps, and this is totally unacceptable to many communities, who not surprisingly, will start looking around for ways to solve the problem themselves if their city leaders fail to do so.
And again, because of the dangers involved both for the homeless and for the residents of communities, it’s imperative that city leaders take this problem seriously and do much better at protecting communities from the problems and crime invariably associated with illegal homeless camps.