Law enforcement faces a more urgent challenge than the defund the police movement ever posed: the rise of private policing.

And now, Maryland lawmakers are seeking to rein in the lightly regulated but heavily armed sector.

While the $50 billion private security services industry can and should serve to complement law enforcement’s role, in many cases that industry is taking the place of police.

And that comes with serious, sometimes deadly, consequences.

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In recent months, private security guards patrolling Baltimore have shot three men, killing two. One of those guards, who had previous run-ins with the law, is now charged with murder.

In September, a guard was himself killed on duty patrolling the Morgan State University campus in Baltimore. In early November, a security guard and a suspected shoplifter exchanged gunfire — killing each other — outside a grocery store in a Maryland suburb of Washington, D.C.

Baltimore and other cities cut their police budgets in 2020, but have since restored funding, and many have reinstituted disbanded law enforcement units. In November 2021, Minneapolis voters soundly rejected a city charter amendment to abolish the police department and replace it with a “Department of Public Safety,” without clearly defined makeup and functions.

The public continues to support law enforcement, as surveys show most Americans, including residents of the largest cities, want more or the same amount of police presence in their communities. Many departments, however, have curtailed enforcement activities and many officers have walked away altogether.

Police retirements and resignations are up sharply in many places as new officer recruitment falters, leaving many departments dangerously understaffed. Those still on the force say they feel demoralized and debilitated and are doing less proactive policing. Arrests, stops and searches have plummeted in areas where people say they need more, not less, policing.

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Private firms have stepped into this void, deploying armed guards and security systems to protect citizens who believe they are unable to rely on local police.

Retailers are now staffing their stores with more, and often armed, security to deter theft and protect their customers and employees. Demand for armed guards at grocery stores has also increased.

Private security services have filled the gap left by under-policing and understaffed law enforcement agencies. This is a dangerous quick fix to the underlying policing crisis that will, in the long run, create more problems than it solves.

The social contract that grants law enforcement its powers to arrest and use necessary force is torn apart when those powers are delegated to private actors without the incumbent responsibilities, extensive training and accountability to the public.

The private security industry’s rise also bodes poorly for citizen equality. If corporations and the wealthy can buy access to safety while the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves, we risk becoming a two-tier society in which the rich have safety and security unavailable to everyone else.

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All citizens deserve the level of protection that a properly funded, well-trained police force can provide. Lawmakers and other government leaders must address the current crisis in policing and thereby reduce the growing reliance on private security, with the risks it brings.

Jason Johnson, a former deputy commissioner of the Baltimore Police Department, is president of the Law Enforcement Legal Defense Fund. Sean Kennedy is the LELDF policy director and visiting fellow at the Maryland Public Policy Institute.