Private Patrolling at the Boundaries of Public Duty

Kathleen M. Naccarato | October 8, 2023

In the shadow of contemporary debates over police functions, funding, and accountability, a new form of preventative policing has proliferated. Improvement districts, most commonly associated with downtown revitalization efforts, increasingly served a new purpose—crime control. Communities dissatisfied with public police services have found that they may leverage improvement district tax revenues to hire off-duty police officers to patrol their neighborhoods. This trend has not been without controversy. Critics have contended that these semiprivate, semipublic police patrols create a two-tier system of public safety, allowing wealthy residents to privately purchase powers that belong to the public as a whole.

This Note critically examines improvement-district-sponsored policing through the lens of anticorruption law. It observes that while American law has long prohibited officials from privately profiting from their public powers, the historically blurry line between public and private policing has frustrated attempts to categorize the actions of off-duty police officers as pursuant to public power. Yet, many of the distinctions courts rely upon when classifying off-duty officers as private actors do not exist when those off-duty officers work on behalf of an improvement district. Consequently, this Note finds that improvement-district-sponsored policing violates state anticorruption laws by enabling off-duty officers and contracted security companies to exchange public power for private profit.