The authorities of public law enforcement agencies are a product of the polities for which they serve. Only governments can pass laws, and police and sheriff’s departments are established for the purpose of enforcing those laws. Their precise authorities are spelled out in the civil and criminal codes established over time by local and state governments as well as by the federal government. Each enjoys specified areas of jurisdiction, albeit with sometimes considerable overlap between them. City police enforce ordinances passed by city government; state police investigate and enforce laws passed at the state level, and federal law enforcement agencies investigate and enforce laws passed by the U.S. Congress.
In contrast, private security companies are very limited in their authorities, although the past 20 years have witnessed a major expansion in the role of such companies, especially overseas, but also here in the United States, for example, in the aftermath of natural disasters or major rioting when private firms are hired to augment public agencies. The legal authorities of private firms have continuously proven resistant to easy definition. A 1976 study conducted by a Private Security Advisory Council for the U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Justice defined the parameters as follows:
“Most frequently, the private security employee, under the law, has the equivalent power of a private citizen to arrest, to defend himself and others, to investigate, and to carry firearms. Usually he does not have special police powers, nor is he subject to the constitutional and statutory limitations of public law enforcement. Thus, most law delineating the scope of legal authority of private security is found in private citizens' rights and limitations.”
This description of the legal parameters within which private security companies operate is, obviously, vague; that was its intended purpose – to highlight the lack of clearly-delineated boundaries governing such companies. It is important to keep in mind, however, that private security companies are just that: private. They do not enjoy the authorities given to public law enforcement agencies, and must tread carefully when executing their citizens’ right to affect an arrest. In fact, “arrest,” while commonly used, should more appropriately be stated as “detained,” as private security guards are authorized to detain individuals on “probable cause” that the detained individual has violated a law, for example, trespassing or shoplifting. Detaining someone, however, is not the same as arresting him or her, as an arrest invariably involves a process including transporting the suspect, fingerprinting and photographing the suspect, and facilitating the suspect’s transition through the criminal justice system. All of those steps are well-outside the purview of private security firms, except when such firms are contracted by the government to perform very specific functions in support of public law enforcement agencies.
The laws which govern public law enforcement are many and quite stringent. Police officers have arrest powers but must have due cause to stop a vehicle or citizen. They are charged with the safety of the citizens of the city or state which they have sworn to protect and must go through police academy training to be police officers. Many states and cities also require a two or four year college degree to get into the police academy. Private security firms are different in that they protect property and the people within that property. They usually have no arrest powers and require public police officers to do that part of the job for them. Unfortunately, the line between the two is getting more blurred as private firms are called in more often to help the public officers in situations where many more officers are needed. Laws are trying to keep up with the ever changing public landscape, but often are behind. The laws governing arrest for public officers require them to have just cause, no abuse of power, transport of the individual in question no matter how obstructive the person is, and delivery to one of the jails or holding spaces assigned while the incident is sorted out. Often police have cameras in their vehicles not only to film the perpetrator, but to film what the officer does to make sure the law is followed to the letter. Private firms do not operate with the public eye on them to the same degree. Police officers have a difficult job to balance the law and the needs of the people they serve with the difficulties the job presents.