Private “Special Police” in DC

Community Questions, from Recruitment to Accountability

Special police officers in the District used deadly force three times this past year, resulting in the deaths of three black men. Two of these fatal encounters with special police officers (SPOs) – who, like security officers (SOs), are private employees certified by the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), took place east of the river. Video from one incident shows SPOs, apparently unaware that the man in their custody is not breathing, using restraint MPD does not sanction. This fall, the DC Council will consider new regulations for SPOs and security officers. Meanwhile, community members have raised serious questions about the training and deployment of these private employees.

What Are SPOs and SOs Allowed to Do

SPOs have arrest powers within limited jurisdictions, such as apartment complexes, and may be armed. SOs are unarmed and can detain but not arrest. SPOs and SOs are trained, employed, and supervised by private companies; they report to their employers and their clients.

Blackout Investigations and Security Services, for example, advertises: “Documentation and report writing is a crucial part of our daily job function. Blackout guards are required to document their actions...as well as incidents that occur during their shifts. These reports are maintained and filed on site for your review daily.” Those files, however, are private. Unless MPD is also involved, SPO/SO encounters yield no police report. Disciplinary actions within firms like Blackout are also private. 

Alonzo Smith, 27, unarmed and charged with no crime, died as a result of an encounter with Blackout SPOs at Marbury Plaza Apartments. To date, SPOs involved in Smith’s death, on Nov. 1, 2015, have yet to be charged or named. Asked about the Blackout case, MPD spokesperson Alice Kim says MPD “cannot comment on an open criminal investigation.” As it happens, however, MPD responded to 911 calls from Marbury residents, just hours after new body-cam regulations had gone into effect. Their video, now public, shows a Blackout employee engaged with a cell-phone while kneeling on the back of an unresponsive, restrained man whose head hangs off a stairwell landing. Blackout refused to comment for this article. 

SPOs and Accountability

As public officials consider new training regimens for SPOs, Netfa Freeman, Ward 8 resident and Pan-African Community Action (PACA) organizer, worries that such plans “take away the possibility of guilt” for the past. “It is shifting the focus away from systemic issues, diverting attention from brutality.” PACA (pacadmv.org) seeks community control and accountability for all police as well as justice in the Smith case.

Accountability for Blackout SPOs “who didn’t know what the hell they were doing,” is also a priority for Ronald Hampton, retired 23-year MPD veteran, former executive director of the National Black Police Association, and co-convener of Institute of the Black World’s DC Justice Collaborative (ibw21.org). 

Hampton also favors “education,” which he distinguishes from “training,” for SPOs. The current requirement is 40 hours (two weekends), plus separate firearms training, with additional requirements for campus and Metro SPOs. In addition, Hampton says: “[SPOs] should not be put into a situation without adequate backup. And we have to talk about the issue of supervision, which must be intense and regular. They have to know that the person who oversees them is vigilant.”  

Hampton also argues, along with PACA and others, for transparency: identification of SPOs involved in any fatality, administrative leave and investigation, public reports, and, as needed, criminal trials. “Whether redress is effective or not with MPD is questionable, but there is a process.”

At present, MPD spokesperson Alice Kim explains: “A security agency company has a duty to supervise the individuals they employ and can administer any disciplinary measures it deems necessary as outlined in [the DC Code].” MPD’s Security Officers Management Branch is charged with investigating SPO-related incidents, and “serious use of force” incidents are investigated by the MPD’s Internal Affairs Division in conjunction with the United States Attorney’s Office.”

Steve Maritas, Organizing Director for the Law Enforcement Officers Security Unions (leosudc.org), representing 300 local SPOs, says SPOs are already “acting as regular police officers. They have the same arrest power.” He argues for commensurate training and matching compensation. Maritas says any additional training is “a step in the right direction,” stressing the need to prepare for split-second emergency decision-making in high profile and neighborhood locations. 

But Hampton, citing training and privatization issues, warns against allowing SPOs to “police in the community.” 

SPOs and Affected Communities

“We must ensure that we are not abdicating government responsibilities to private companies,” says Monica Hopkins-Maxwell, executive director of ACLU-National Capital Area (aclu-nca.org). She notes one negative consequence of privatization: Police nationwide have been exploring alternatives to patrolling “with the intent of ‘we’re looking for crime,’” but private security professionals are not necessarily “in those conversations.” 

“We have concerns about ways in which certain communities in the District of Columbia are policed,” by both MPD and private security, Hopkins-Maxwell continues. “Look at how we treat black communities and communities of color, compared with white communities. There is a presupposition that one community needs to be policed more than another.” 

To illustrate: Every few years – 2015, 2012, 2007, 2003 – expansion of campus SPO jurisdiction is proposed, to address off-campus rowdiness and provide “seamless” policing. Each time, residents near universities in Wards 2 and 3 raise concerns about liability, civil liberties, and consent. Each time, citizens object to deployment of campus SPOs, with one-fourth training of MPD officers, into surrounding neighborhoods. Each time, the proposal stalls.

Meanwhile, David Smith, president of the Deanwood Citizens Association (and no relation to Alonzo), says officers, many “coming back from the military,” are sent east of the river, where “residents look exactly like the militants in countries where they were stationed.” He wants officers, MPD and SPO, from the community: “It’s not about race – But, do they live here and send their kids to our schools?”

“The whole police philosophy nationwide has to change,” says Henderson Long, founder of Missing and Exploited East of the River. “We need leadership from top down to get some aggressive reform,” 

Finally, Beverly Smith, PACA organizer and mother of Alonzo, says the homicide of her son “is part of a larger crisis of Black people...dying at the hands of those put in charge of protecting a system that only respects rich people and their property.” She joins Hampton, PACA, and others who seek completely new “public safety” models. 

Additional body-cam view shows Blackout SPO engaged with cellphone while kneeling atop an individual who, as MPD quickly determines upon arrival, has stopped breathing.
With apologies to the loved ones of Alonzo Smith: At Marbury Plaza, Blackout SPO uses knee restraint on cuffed and unresponsive man whose head hangs off landing.

Background on SPOs/SOs appeared in August East of the River. Look for details on proposed regulations in October. Virginia Spatz is a regular contributor to Capital Community News and Feature Reporter for Education Town Hall on We Act Radio, on-line at vspatz.wordpress.com. 


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