The Rise of Private Cops: How Not to Tackle Homelessness

Yves here. Forgive me for expressing my considerable frustration with this article. On the one hand, it does describe a problem that is routinely ignored: they way private police are clearing the homeless out of public spaces, and beating them up while doing so, and the regular cops are not defending the rights of the homeless even when bystanders present evidence the private cops were out of line.

Author Sonali Kolhatkar points out that homelessness is primarily the result of the lack of affordable housing. When I was a kid who had just come to New York City, and Manhattan had plenty of ungentrified ‘hoods, there were also plenty of single room occupancy hotels where the poor could still get a bed and have access to a bathroom. As the tide turned back in favor of city living, those buildings were purchased, razed, and replaced with upscale housing. So there is some merit in describing where ultimate solutions lie.

But what about the fake cop abuse right in front of her? What about action to combat that? The homeless man beaten up in this account was on a public sidewalk. A private guard has jurisdiction only over the private property of the party that hired him. It does not extend to public areas, or even to the property of someone who does not employ him, say a neighboring business. Private guards similarly are not allowed to use force save defensively.

It is disappointing not to see Kolhatkar spell out why the guard was acting illegally, since far too many are deferential to men in uniforms, much the less suggest action steps, like filing a report with the local precinct and cc’ing the chief of police, the mayor, and important local media (the big local TV stations, any important local papers). One report won’t change things but a series of complaints will raise the specter of bad press about out of control security thugs.

Another vehicle for embarrassing local police to rein in private guards would be to set up a site and solicit and upload videos of police abusing the homeless. That would take some effort but not a lot of money, assuming a few volunteers.

Consider a different sort of abuse by fake cops, which got national attention because the victim was more sympathetic than a homeless person. In 2017, the 69 year old Dr. Dao was forcibly removed from a United plane when he refused to give up his seat upon request to give it to airline personnel, resulting in Dr. Dao suffering a broken jaw, loss of teeth, and a concussion.

We excoriated the absolutely terrible United and fake cop reporting in United Passenger “Removal”: A Reporting and Management Fail.

A critical fact universally ignored is that once a passenger is in the seat, unless he has been disruptive or is otherwise arguably a danger (and Dr. Dao was not) the airline has no right to remove him. Here is the section germane to this post:

Lack of discussion of the status of the airport security personnel. The Financial Times was one of the few publications to be early to describe the airport security staff correctly, as security officers of the Chicago Department of Aviation. The Department of Aviation is a self-funded governmental unit (virtually no municipal airports in the US have been privatized). Its security personnel are airport police. They are not part of the Chicago Police department but appear to have their own special purpose authority within the airport.

A quick check at the time suggested that airport security personnel across the US overwhelmingly are not regular police and therefore have limited legal authority. It came out in later reports that these Chicago Department of Aviation workers had behaved improperly even before getting to the issue of use of force.

These private guards have vastly more limited legitimate power. I wish I had the time, but why don’t homeless advocates develop short scripts for members of the public to use when they see these guards acting illegally? There are internet guides on how to talk to actual cops when they want to abuse their authority, like inspect your car without having probable cause. Why not here too?

Aside from acting humanely, there are other reasons for citizens to know how to call out private guards trying to act on public property. It is in your selfish interest to prevent the misuse of private power.

By Sonali Kolhatkar, an award-winning multimedia journalist. She is the founder, host, and executive producer of “Rising Up With Sonali,” a weekly television and radio show that airs on Free Speech TV and Pacifica stations. Her most recent book is Rising Up: The Power of Narrative in Pursuing Racial Justice (City Lights Books, 2023). She is a writing fellow for the Economy for All project at the Independent Media Institute and the racial justice and civil liberties editor at Yes! Magazine. She serves as the co-director of the nonprofit solidarity organization the Afghan Women’s Mission and is a co-author of Bleeding Afghanistan. She also sits on the board of directors of Justice Action Center, an immigrant rights organization. Produced by Economy for All, a project of the Independent Media Institute

During a recent visit to Portland, Oregon, my husband and I watched a private security guard help up an unhoused man from the sidewalk. Three white women looked on at the interaction that took place in the trendy Nob Hill neighborhood on August 7, 2023, right in front of a yoga studio.

But the guard was not responding with compassion. Seconds earlier, the tall and very muscular man sporting a flak jacket emblazoned with the word “security,” had walked right by me toward the unhoused man and savagely knocked him to the ground without provocation or warning. Blood streamed from the victim’s face and onto the sidewalk. He stood up as the guard hovered over him and stumbled toward the damaged glasses that had fallen off his face during the assault. The guard, who was twice the man’s size, picked up and offered him the hat that had also fallen off his head and ushered him away.

It’s increasingly common to see private security guards patrolling the streets of Portland—considered one of the most progressive cities in the United States. Not only are businesses banding together to pay for private armed patrols, but even Portland State University is using such a service on its campus. The city of Portland also recently increased its private security budget for City Hall by more than half a million dollars to hire three armed guards.

The trend is a knee-jerk response to sharply rising homelessness. There are tents belonging to unhoused people sprinkled throughout downtown Portland and Nob Hill. Like much of Portland, many of the unhoused are white, but, as Axios in a report about a homelessness survey pointed out, “the rate of homelessness among people in the Portland area who are Black, Hispanic, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander grew more rapidly than among people who are white.”

Three summers ago, Portland—one of the nation’s whitest cities—was also an epicenter of the nationwide racial justice uprising in response to the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. “There are more Black Lives Matter signs in Portland than Black people,” joked one Black resident to the New York Times. As Donald Trump’s administration sent armed federal agents to Portland to quash the uprising, the city’s residents and officials came to symbolize a heroic resistance to rising authoritarianism.

The brutal savagery of what we witnessed in Nob Hill was in jarring contrast to the signs, stickers, and posters that many Portland businesses continue to display on their windows, declaring that “Black Lives Matter,” or “All Genders are Welcome,” and that promise safety to everyone. Everyone but the unhoused, apparently.

Shocked by the violence of the security guard’s assault, my husband and I confronted the perpetrator. He responded that hours earlier the victim had allegedly assaulted a woman in the neighborhood. In the seconds before he was attacked, however, I had walked within a few feet of the unhoused man as he muttered to himself in what sounded like a mix of English and a foreign language. The man had been minding his own business.

In a detailed three-part investigation for Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) in December 2021, Rebecca Ellis examined how businesses have begun paying unknown sums of money to hire private security patrols. According to Ellis, “Private security firms in Oregon are notoriously underregulated, and their employees are required to receive a fraction of the training and oversight as public law enforcement.” She added, “They remain accountable primarily to their clients, not the public.”

Business owners and residents are claiming that rising homelessness is the result of increased drug addiction, forcing them to resort to private security. But researchers point to high rents and a lack of affordable housing—not drug use—as the cause of people living without homes.

As we responded to the assault against the unhoused man with an appropriate level of shock, the three white women who had also watched the incident unfold rushed to the guard’s defense. They seemed to know instinctively by our visible horror that we were visitors to the city, and informed us in no uncertain terms that the guard was simply doing his job. “Leave the poor man alone,” said one of them, sporting what appeared to be scrubs (I wondered, was she a health care worker?). She wasn’t referring to the victim, but rather his assaulter.

Meanwhile, an employee of prAna, the storefront where the attack took place, shooed us away from the still-wet blood spatters that now stained the sidewalk. He used a spray cleaner to wipe away the evidence, seconds after I photographed it. The yoga studio, which also sells high-end clothing, boasts on its website that the Sanskrit word for which it is named, is “the life-giving force, the universal energy that flows within and among us, connecting us with all other living beings.”

Although the unhoused man bled the same way as any of us would, he was not seen as a living being in the moment that the security guard brutally slammed him into the sidewalk. He was an inconvenient object, a nuisance, marring the enjoyment of consumers who simply wanted to practice their mindfulness without having to face the ugly underbelly of racial capitalism.

The consequences of private muscle are as serious and as potentially deadly as state power. In 2021, a private security guard named Logan Gimbel was sentenced to a life term in prison for fatally shooting a resident named Freddy Nelson with an unlicensed firearm. Ellis reported in the second piece of the OPB series that a private security guard working for a company named Echelon had engaged in a brutal assault on a 46-year-old unhoused woman named Katherine Hoffman. The assault sounded similar to what I had seen happen in Nob Hill. When speaking with police, the guard who beat Hoffman with his baton bizarrely claimed it was the baton that did it, not he. “I had it in my hand, I didn’t hit her with it,” he told police. “But it did hit her.”

The mercenary reliance on private security is embedded in a belief that Portland’s police have been “defunded.” But detailed analyses such as this one reveal that it is not true that the police force has been stripped of funding. As was the case in many American cities, Portland’s city council representatives initially paid lip service to racial justice protesters in the summer of 2020 by voting to make modest cuts to police budgets, only to restore them merely months later.

There is indeed a serious problem of homelessness in Portland and the business owners who have resorted to private security claim they simply want to “clean up” the problems that the city refuses to. A political battle is ensuing over allowing homelessness to flourish rather than cracking down on the unhoused.

But there is a glaring omission in the police-versus-private-security and violence-versus-the-unhoused fights, and that is the fact that Oregon is simply an unaffordable place to live. One economist told OPB’s April Ehrlich, “We have the worst affordability… Low vacancies and high prices… [are] indicative of a housing shortage.” According to Ehrlich, “Oregon is among states with the lowest supply of rentals that are affordable to people at or below poverty levels.”

When housing is in short supply and rents are out of reach, it’s inevitable that the number of people without homes will rise. Hiring private security firms to supplement policing does little to address this systemic cause of homelessness. Just as the yoga studio’s employee cleaned away the blood of the unhoused man from the sidewalk, the use of private security is intended to sweep away the human detritus of economic injustice.

About 30 minutes after the assault that I witnessed took place, the Portland police showed up, blocking the intersection outside the yoga storefront with a large patrol car. Were they on the scene to arrest the security guard, I wondered?

No. We spotted the guard walking freely on the sidewalk and then disappearing into a nearby store, which was presumably one of his employers. Meanwhile, the police officers had placed the unhoused assault victim in the back of their patrol car. We offered the cops our testimony, but they appeared uninterested. Ultimately, it was clear to us that the guard and the police were both paid to lock up the unhoused man (who clearly needed mental health treatment), in service of their wealthy white patrons—Nob Hill’s business owners and residents.

Unless city, state, or federal governments directly address the fact that the rent is too damn high and wages are too damn low, people will continue to lose access to housing and services and find themselves on the receiving end of blows and batons from either private guards or the police, as business owners and wealthier residents look on with approval.

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  1. John

    Private security, mall cops, household troops, the lord’s levy, the brute squad, condotterie, private military contractors … they go by many names and have many stated functions, but at the bottom of it they are unofficial muscle. Most, many, are not thugs but folks looking for a paycheck. Thumping the public, especially the “undesirable” portion of it was once within the purview of the police, the real official uniformed police. That is frowned upon nowadays. An officer could lose his job … police brutality … defund the police … bad optics … what happens? The private sector steps in … Hey, someone has to do it, right?

    Nearly everyone has a camera these days. Take pictures … lots of pictures … post them … publish them … shine bright lights … thuggery flourishes best in shady to dark places.

    1. JBird4049

      It is not our elites that are being stupid. I wonder if anyone in this article realizes the size, power, and often lethal actions, including assassinations, of the various private armies of the corporations and companies like the Pinkertons in the late 1800s and the first half of the 1900s? The police and private security forces in the late 1700s and into the 1800s were originally meant to control, by violence if needed, the poor both in England and the American colonies and states. In the American South, it was the white poor as well as the black slaves who were under the purview of the slave patrols. Both the unions and various social movements eventually enjoyed their attention.

      As the cliché says, the more things change, the more more it remains the same. As poverty expands along with the social unrest it creates, the call for the return of the old ways starts up.

  2. juno mas

    In California most college campus security are trained community safety officers (CSO) that are provided badges through POST academy (Police Officer Standards Training). They can not carry firearms, arrest people/students, or otherwise detain people. If attacked they can use pepper spray as a deterrent. Campus security, CSO’s, are usually employed by the college, not privately. Campus security co-ordinates with the local sheriff/police dept. and can call for an “arrest” if they have witnessed directly unlawful acts that require immediate resolution. I have encountered a few CSO’s who are “Badged Officer” wannabe’s.

    The larger University campus will have fully qualified police force that is fully POST accredited, with the ability to carry a firearm and make arrests (or shoot you on the spot, if deemed appropriate). These officers train regularly for the potential “active shooter” on campus. They have direct communication with the big time SWAT squad.

    Any encounter with the homeless may require the presence of experienced social workers as the data in my part of the state indicates that half, or more, are either mentally unstable or drug addicted. So a police officer of any stripe will be in over their head.

  3. Carla

    Thank you, Yves, for your very important preface to this piece. I would actually like to see your final sentence strengthened to say “It is in the public interest, as well as your self-interest, to prevent the misuse of private power.”

  4. David in Friday Harbor

    I cringe each time I see Sonali Kolhatkar‘s byline.

    She is beyond clueless. Aside from her failure to call 9-1-1 when witnessing an apparent (to her) unprovoked assault, she claims to be a “reporter.” Why then, didn’t she follow-up with a public-records inquiry about the eventual (no thanks to her) police response? Kolhatkar can only be bothered to share her superficial, personal, and privileged reaction, which apparently isn’t shared by the presumably quite “liberal” yoga class, who evidently saw more than her. We’ll never know the whole story.

    Kolhatkar has discerned that “Oregon is simply an unaffordable place to live”??? News-flash: if a person has no job, no income, and no assets, nowhere is an affordable place to live. If Kolhatkar had the gumption to interview other unhoused persons in Portland, they would have informed her that neoliberal globalization has turfed them out of sustainable employment and through “free trade” has flooded the streets with powerful substances that make the excruciating physical pain of living rough on a sidewalk ignorable if not tolerable.

    The level of frustration directed against the victims of rather than the perpetrators of financialization taking the place of industrial production in communities now made raw by the systemic neglect of vast swathes of our population is indeed driving senseless violence. Kolhatkar’s strategy of just standing there and whinging ain’t going to fix the problem.

  5. Jake

    I have to admit that I didn’t read the article because homelessness has become a trigger issue for me. Just writing this quick comment is going to ruin my morning and I will now be thinking about my former home for hours and I won’t be able to think about anything else. I won’t be able to read any responses either so feel free to call me a hater or whatever, I’ve heard it all before so many times. When homeless people begin to frequent an area, it certain cities with a big enough homeless population, there is always a second wave. First wave is people who need help and can benefit from it. Second wave is what I call the methheads. Apologies I know we aren’t supposed to call people that but I feel it’s an incredibly fair label. These are the people who were on meth before they became homeless, or more accurately, made their home under the highway. They bully and rob the other homeless people, and everyone else. The go to the bathroom everywhere all the time. And they panhandle for meth. Soon, all the first wavers are gone because they can’t handle it and now that community if left with nothing but second wavers destroying homes and businesses, bullying, threatening, and attacking everyone. Darting out into the street in front of cars intentionally. And smoking meth all the time. Hanging out with the young kids from the neighborhood. After 5 or 10 years of the second wave taking hold, things get really desperate until you get around the idea that you are going to have to leave your home and start fresh, leave your friends and neighbors, your home town. It’s such a weird feeling to see a community torn apart because a small number of activists thought they could let people ‘camp’ in a city and do drugs all day and night and that that wouldn’t turn into a huge disaster for the drug addicts and the rest of the community. I’m still struggling with the trauma of having a second waver attack me with a golf club in 2021. Since then the hardest part has been hearing all of the activists talk about criminalizing homelessness or housing is a human right, when all I asked about is can we get some police to take action against the people who are destroying our community? Not talking about arresting any and all homeless people, I just want the person who threatened to kill me in the park to get arrested, or the person with the golf club, or the guy selling meth to the teenagers. I don’t care if they get charged and do time, but at least getting processed might make them change their ways? If the idea is that enforcing the law would cause someone harm because they are poor, what about poor people with cars? Shouldn’t they be allowed to drive drunk? Any attempts to clarify are often met with shouts of “YOU CANT CRIMINALIZE HOMELESSNESS!!!!!1” So people are left with no good options. Especially businesses. Often a person living on the street will get mad at a business for some reason and then decide to torment that business until it’s forced to relocate or close. I don’t think it’s a good idea for businesses and residents to hire goon squads to harass homeless people. I can also understand why many are, they have been left with no choice. If a business was doing it in my old neighborhood I would not complain. As more and more blue cities turn into meth camps, people are going to start finding solutions where ever they can, like hiring goon squads. It’s just human nature. The left can keep pointing fingers at everyone and acting like they are morally superior, but that’s just going to make more regular people so pissed off they vote republican. It certainly isn’t going to help people living on the street, no matter which wave they rode in on. Now I’m going to go spend the next few hours, maybe the rest of the day, thinking about my former city council, mayor, and activists stealing my home and my home town. And about all the first wavers in Austin that weren’t able to escape before the second wave, and the activists who insist everything is going according to plan, destroyed everything.

  6. GDmofo

    “It is in your selfish interest to prevent the misuse of private power.”

    Great quote, but see also: “He was jeopardizing his traditional rights of freedom and independence by daring to exercise them” –Catch 22

    Just be forewarned

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