What's the appropriate fee for police services?
Charging for certain types of police protection is a practice that has crept into standard operating procedure for some police agencies, but it is more than a little bit questionable.
Though not necessarily as dubious as the notion of asking victims to pay fees when police respond, it seems like it could well be a dangerous step in the direction of fee-for-service police protection.
The most recent example came when the crew of the Netflix series "House of Cards" was filming in Bel Air. The town police department provided at least a portion of the security and the town was paid a negotiated rate of $62 per personnel hour, for a total of $1,550.
This is hardly the first time local police agencies have sought, and received, payment for protection services.
Nearly 20 years ago, the Aberdeen Police Department received grant money that was used to cover police overtime costs associated with providing extra foot patrols in the privately owned Washington Square Apartments, a complex that had become something of a hot spot for criminal activity at the time. While the patrols were being provided to a largely private property, they were taxpayer funded. It just wasn't money generated through taxes levied by the Aberdeen city government.
It was several years later when the Havre de Grace police started asking for the organizations that stage the community's many large festivals to provide money to cover the cost of extra police patrols. Around the same time, the city police department also sought money from the Harford County Public Library system to provide extra security at the local library branch at a time when the library branch was experiencing some troubles. (Then, as now, the library was fewer than three blocks from the police station, so it was a rather curious development that untoward behavior would have become a problem at the library, but that's another matter.)
If there was a breakdown in civil society and a group of well armed people asked various businesses and organizations to pay for security or go it alone, that would be referred to a classic protection racket.
If law-abiding citizens are engaged in legal behavior, police have an obligation to ensure a measure of security, same as would be the case during rush hour. It's worth noting that no one ever expects local shopping centers to pay the police extra money during the holiday season when patrols for traffic and thievery end up being increased to help ensure the safety of holiday commerce.
It is one thing for a private organization to end up having to pay for a specific kind of security protection, for example to keep autograph hounds off the set of a serious movie shoot. There are, however, security firms that can be retained to do that kind of work. It's quiet another thing for police agencies, or the towns that fund them, to expect to be paid for exactly the kinds of services police departments were established to provide.
It may not be a lot of money, and Netflix may well be able to afford $1,550, but when ordinary citizens engaged in legal activities have to pay extra for standard police protection, the slippery slope established could result in such unintended consequences as more affluent neighborhoods paying extra for patrols at the expense of everyone else. Or, how about the ultimate absurdity of being sent a bill every time we have an encounter with the police?