In June 2020, the Minneapolis city council famously vowed to defund the police department. Though their plans fell through, the fully funded MPD is nonetheless struggling. More than 250 officers have resigned or retired since then. Earlier this year, the Minneapolis supreme court ruled that the city has a duty to staff the MPD with a minimum of 731 sworn officers, but the department is at least 100 officers short of that target. Meantime, crime has spiked, with 96 homicides in 2021—doubling the number in 2019 and tying a 1995 record.
Private security has stepped into the breach. The number of licenses approved for new private providers rose from 14 in 2019 to 27 in 2021, according to data from Minnesota’s Board of Private Detective and Protective Agent Services. Demand is exploding as businesses increasingly opt for private guards over off-duty cops.
Christopher Forest started his private security firm, Unparalleled Security, after the rioting of 2020. Today, he has 175 employees. Forest did not set out to start a private security firm, having previously worked as CEO of Minnesota’s largest valet-parking company. But after June 2020, his clients began approaching him with requests for security guards. These clients had once hired off-duty police officers for their security needs, but the MPD’s image after the George Floyd killing made that more difficult.
“I think it just had to do with the temperature in the room when you have a police officer in a venue versus an unarmed security guard,” Forest says.
Michael MacDonald, who runs a smaller private security firm called JomsVikings Protection and Security, agrees. “Stores do not want cops out in front because of the negative attention it can bring to their facilities,” says MacDonald. His license to operate was issued July 31, 2020. Today, he has 18 full-time and ten part-time employees.
High crime means that new clients, such as movie theaters, are entering the market for private security, says Richard Hodson, the chairman of Minnesota’s Board of Private Detective and Protective Agent Services. Hodson says he knows of a retired police officer who recently got a license to run his own private security firm but has had to turn down contracts because he cannot hire enough guards to staff them. Demand exceeds supply.
Businesses still fear negative publicity from taking an aggressive enforcement stance. Forest says retail clients instruct his guards not to confront shoplifters. “Retail is in a place where they do not want you to even address the person,” he says. “You are not to talk to them. You are not to approach them. You are not to ask to see the items in their bag. If they are purchasing something, you are asked to not look at the receipt. You are 100 percent visual deterrent, and that is all.”
That approach isn’t universal. MacDonald says that his guards sometimes confront shoplifters, but never aggressively. “When we zone in on the individual who is stealing, we go over there and we say, ‘Hey, man, we know you stole. Can you just put it back and then leave?’ We start with that approach. We don’t go right to the top,” he says. “I will only take a contract for a store if there is a clear understanding that we are strictly there for employee safety. We are not loss prevention.”
Should guards call police to stop crimes in progress? MacDonald’s personnel tend not to do so for shoplifting. Forest says that some of his guards who work for hotels do intervene if guests are engaging in illegal activities; in theory, they should call the police, but they usually don’t. “If it is not a life threatening situation, the police do not show up,” Forest says. “They let my guards de-escalate on their own.”
Even a nonconfrontational approach can escalate. MacDonald describes an incident that occurred in July: “A guy stole a bag of chips and shoved it down his pants. Our guy made an approach and was like, ‘You can keep the chips, but you still got to go.’ Well, the guy brandished a firearm out of his bag. So our guy pulled his firearm. And then the guy took off running. But our employee had the level of training to remember that he could still re-holster it, and he does not have to engage any further.” That incident merited a rare call to the MPD. “If it gets higher than a theft, like what happened with my employee, then the cops will actually come, because otherwise they are not coming,” says MacDonald.
Some Minneapolis residents still prefer to hire off-duty cops, whom the department makes available through what it calls the “buyback program.” The upscale Lowry neighborhood established the Minneapolis Safety Initiative for off-duty police to conduct patrols. Residents are trying to raise $210,000, suggesting a recurring contribution from their neighbors of $220/month for at least six months. The Minneapolis Safety Initiative attracted significant coverage, including criticism from some who argue that wealthier neighborhoods are purchasing scarce police hours.
Nevertheless, demand for private security is growing. MacDonald and Forest expect to see significant expansion in the year ahead. High crime and police shortages are changing the public-safety landscape in Minneapolis.
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