Last year, the #defundthepolice movement took the United States by storm. Local police departments saw their budgets cut and their officers vilified. The predictable result is that crime rates are surging as police are less visible on America’s streets.
Where do we go from here? In the absence of well-funded police departments and with the uncertainty that comes with rising crime, middle-class Americans likely will be forced to look for alternatives. Their likeliest option: private security. I am basing that prediction on my experience of living in South Africa between 2015 and 2017.
For Americans, the term “private security” likely evokes images of movie stars accompanied by bodyguards. But in South Africa, private security is a normal—and affordable—part of middle-class life. Firms offer a wide range of services at almost any price point. South Africa’s high crime rates coupled with ineffective policing, have made private security a booming business.
South Africa has more than 10,000 registered private security firms and 450,000 registered active private security guards. There are also 1.5 million registered but inactive security guards. I lived with my husband and children in a small city called Potchefstroom, which is located roughly 75 miles southwest of Johannesburg. One private security firm, Mooirivier Beskerming, dominates the local market. A basic package with them starts for as little as 200 rand (approximately $13) a month.
Mooirivier Beskerming cars patrol the streets of Potchefstroom, and their officers are armed. They offer services like remote monitoring and responding to distress calls. If you arrive home late, you can call Mooirivier Beskerming and they will dispatch a car to make sure you enter your house safely.
Mooirivier Beskerming’s work also goes beyond that. Their officers intervene in situations they encounter on patrol even if no clients are involved. They answer noise violation complaints. My impression was that in Potchefstroom, whenever you needed some assistance, you would look around for the nearest Mooirivier Beskerming car—which was never far away. My South African friends told me the situation is the same all across their country. Private security firms are highly visible in the communities they serve. The industry is highly competitive, and this is an important way of winning clients.
Moreover, private security firms are responding to a dire need. Crime rates in South Africa are mindblowing, though accurate statistics are elusive. (Surveys indicate the majority of crimes go unreported, usually because South Africans believe the police won’t do anything in response.) Property crime is rampant, with breaking-and-entering topping the list at an estimated 1.2 million incidents in 2019-20. And here were roughly 21,325 reported homicides in 2019-2020. This in a country of some 59 million people. The United States, with a population five times that of South Africa, had 16,425 reported homicides in 2019.
Where is the South African Police Service (SAPS)? They are a police force in name only.
“Police in South Africa are in a natural state of defunding,” says Michael Heyns, vice-rector of a private college in Pretoria. The South African government’s budget is severely constrained. Their economy is in a dismal state, with unemployment currently above 30 percent. Spending on police is not a government priority.
The limited policing that does exist is extremely ineffective. My husband was the victim of an attempted mugging when he was standing near the entrance of the local police station. If SAPS can’t even protect their own police stations, how can they do anything for the public? Naturally, the situation has emboldened criminals.
The police are not only unable to stop crime, they also actively contribute to it. One study found the police to be the most corrupt public servants in South Africa. For example, they routinely stop and search pedestrians or cars with the aim of extorting bribes.
Self-Defense In Retreat
South Africa does not have an equivalent to the Second Amendment, and this is another driver of demand for private security.
“We have a hunting culture and we have guns for that, but laws are very strict,” says Heyns. Legal gun ownership is not only hard to achieve but also hard to maintain. A friend of ours legally purchased a gun after he immigrated to South Africa in the 1990s. He said that in 2017 the police rescinded his permit when it came up for renewal, telling him he no longer needed the gun. This is absurd since crime rates have risen significantly in his city and across South Africa since he first received the permit. He purchased an air gun to protect his home instead.
Under South African law, if you shoot a burglar you may well end up facing charges. I once asked a friend if she owned a gun. She told me emphatically that she did not. A man she knew had shot and wounded a burglar on his property. As a result, he had been ordered by a court to pay the costs of the burglar’s medical care. She told me she prefers to outsource responsibility for the use of a gun to her private security firm.
Cases like my friend’s acquaintance have a clear chilling effect on the desire to own or use a gun. America may also be heading this way. The publicity surrounding the charges filed against Mark and Patricia McCloskey in St. Louis are a good example. No doubt many Americans will think twice before brandishing their firearms should protestors be marching outside their home.
This is not the only sign that America is following South Africa’s lead. We are already seeing examples of private security firms stepping up to fill the gap left by the local police. In January 2020, Tucker Carlson Tonight aired a segment on the “patrol special police” who work in some wealthy San Francisco neighborhoods.
“In San Francisco, police inaction against crime and vagrancy has become so bad that heavily taxed locals are turning to private police. They are hiring their own. They have no choice,” Carlson said.
The segment featured a sight that is very familiar to me from my time in South Africa: a man patrolling the streets wearing a uniform and driving a car designed to make him look like a police officer, except he’s not.
The houses in that San Francisco neighborhood cost upwards of $4 million. Private security in America is still the domain of the wealthy, but I suspect it will come to the middle class soon. We can expect to see significant innovation in the private security market. Firms will find ways to offer their services to a broader audience at a lower cost.
A Murky Future for Law and Order
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden was vague about his position on the #defundthepolice movement—just as he was vague about most of his positions. He said he does not want to defund the police per se, but he also says the police need significant reform. However, the progressive wing which has taken control of the Democratic Party is fixated on this issue. The party’s 2020 platform says “Police brutality is a stain on the soul of our nation.”
Biden may not be fully on board with their radicalism, but he is too weak to stand up and robustly defend America’s local police departments and support them so they can protect the public.
This is unfortunate because strong, effective local policing is much better for the average citizen than private security. The burden middle-class South Africans carry is enormous. They are first taxed to fund ineffective police and then they pay again for their actual protection. Despite the low cost of private security in South Africa, several of my friends told me they struggle to afford even a basic level of protection.
Also, while private security does a decent job of protecting individual homes and businesses, it does not promote a safer society in general. If it did, South Africa would surely have one of the lowest crime rates in the world. For middle-class citizens, private security is a second-rate option.
“Policing is one of the core functions of the state. If a state can’t provide that then it is not a state worth mentioning,” says Heyns. This is a serious concern in any discussion of South Africa. Let us hope it never becomes an equally serious concern in America.