Baltimore City

State, city officials: more oversight needed of special police

City and state legislators say they will push for greater regulation of longstanding but little-known laws that allow security guards to be granted law enforcement powers to arrest and search citizens.

"If special police make sense, if they're necessary, and if they really do provide enhanced public safety, then at a minimum there needs to be oversight, accountability, training, and qualifications that are set by the state," Sen. Brian Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said Monday. "The idea that you can have private individuals running around with the authority to arrest people and throw them in jail is unnerving."

Added Sen. James Brochin, "There aren't enough checks and balances in the system to prevent a catastrophe from happening. [Security guards] don't know what probable cause is, they don't know the rules of the game. We need to fix this."

For decades, "special police" — security guards with police powers — have provided an extra layer of eyes and ears on the streets, supplementing the sworn police force at no cost to taxpayers and protecting some of Baltimore's most venerable institutions.

But city and state police, who have separate laws authorizing special police, do not provide or require training of the officers, do not monitor their actions and do not generally investigate complaints against them, The Baltimore Sun reported this weekend. Employers are responsible for oversight, and the state and city have no liability for their actions after granting them the authority to take police action.

Bernard C. "Jack" Young, president of the Baltimore City Council, said he plans to call a hearing to examine how the city manages special police licenses.

"We cannot have renegades," Young said at a lunch for the council Monday. "They have to have some kind of training in place. They have to be clearly identifiable, so we'll know who to call when there is an issue or a problem. … This is scary."

A group of Cherry Hill residents filed a lawsuit this summer, saying security officers working for a property management company have been "terrorizing" citizens and exceeding their authority, often in concert with city police. The company and its attorneys have declined to comment on the complaints.

Another local man filed a federal lawsuit, later dropped, against officers who he said detained and arrested him on false pretenses. City police also have circulated warnings about security officers impersonating police.

City police have cut the number of special police licenses they award, and are re-evaluating whether to continue granting them at all.

"The new police commissioner will have an opportunity to review the program and evaluate it with a fresh set of eyes," Ryan O'Doherty, a spokesman for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, said when asked what she thought of the city's special police law.

As of 2010, about 1,000 security guards across the state had special police powers. The city currently has about 50 authorized special police. They work for well-known institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University and Mercy Medical Center, and as bailiffs for the District Court system. Security companies, a church, and a handful of small-business owners also have obtained special police commissions, records show.

In Virginia and North Carolina, similar private security guards with police powers have to meet minimum training and standards. There are no such provisions in Maryland's law once officers pass a background check.

Brochin doesn't think that the special police law should be pulled back, but that tweaks must be made to ensure accountability. He suggested that even if the state police can't keep watch over private security guards, the government could have to take on liability for their actions.

Added Frosh: "I'm as close to as sure I can be that somebody will be introducing legislation on this and our committee will hold hearings to see what the best way forward is. It's something we will be addressing in the [2013 General Assembly] session one way or the other."

City Councilman Brandon Scott, vice chair of the Public Safety Committee, said special police are problematic because residents cannot file complaints against them, the way residents can complain to internal affairs investigators about sworn police officers.

Special police, Scott said, "don't have training. If they knocked you upside the head, there's no way you can make a complaint against them. Are they going to investigate their own people? No, they're not."

Young, the council president, said he was disturbed about claims that special police were blurring the line between security and police.

"I wouldn't want them to have mistaken identity and one of them come and rough me up — or anybody else," Young added. "This issue is too important for it to just slide under the radar."