WASHINGTON — Washington. -- In Georgetown one recent night, after dinner and gossip and talk of the politics of the day, four of us stood on the steps, waiting for one of "Q" Street's Special Police to come and escort guests home one by one. The first "officer," a private guard for the people able to pay fees of $180 a year, arrived wearing a sort of flak-jacket marked SECURITY, to walk with one of the city's better-known correspondents to her house a block away.
At the same time in Los Angeles, though I did not know it then, my wife was standing in the street, waiting for one of the blue-and-yellow patrol cars of our $71-a-month-per-family private police force. Our alarm was blasting into the early California evening, and she did not want to go into the house alone.
And in Chicago, at the Robert Taylor Homes, real police, the kind paid for by taxpayers, were denied court permission to "sweep" though the 16-story high-rise projects in the hopes of finding some of the guns used to fire 300 shots and kill three children the week before. Too bad for the folks living there, mostly black, who can't afford private protection like the good white burghers of Georgetown and West L.A.
In Chicago, a federal judge named Wayne Andersen ruled against 5,000 Robert Taylor residents who had signed petitions calling for weapon searches without warrants specifying the type and probable location of each gun. The idea of the sweeps, supported by Mayor Richard Daley, was challenged by four Robert Taylor residents represented by the American Civil Liberties Union.
The judge was right, of course. That is our law. He said he understood that Taylor residents believed that the Chicago police cannot protect them. But Americans cannot waive their constitutional rights to security in their own homes -- security against the government, that is. Security against gangs and drug dealers is another matter. Children are advised to sleep under their beds and mothers are borrowing bulletproof vests to go out to buy food.
It's the American way. Like health care. We have the best health care in the world -- for those who can afford to pay for it. Rich and poor alike are free to hire personal or neighborhood bodyguards -- as Anatole France once said that both the rich and poor of Paris had the right to sleep under the bridges of the Seine.
It has been only in the past few years that many Americans have come to the sad conclusion that the government (the police) cannot protect them. New Yorkers got it first, late in the 1960s as I recall. Big dogs, multiple locks and chains, mercury vapor streetlights and jail bars on windows were all early police substitutes. If your apartment were burglarized, as mine was in 1972, the cops politely informed you that they did not investigate crimes where the value of stolen property was less than $15,000.
When my car was stolen that same year in Greenwich Village, I was told by police a couple of weeks later that it was abandoned under the West Side Highway. I said I'd come up to the precinct house, but a sergeant told me there was no need for that. They did not pick up stolen cars; they only reported sightings -- and by the time I got uptown, the car had been stolen again.
You got used to it, and developed the "second skin" that characterizes New Yorkers. We usually know who is around us. And we learned that there was no use reporting anything to the police, unless an insurance company demanded police records before paying out anything. (That is why I am extremely skeptical about the recent spate of statistics showing a reduction in crime around the country. I'd bet on a reduction of reporting crime.)
Soon we will all be like New Yorkers, if we are not already. We will become or have become a people who do not care about having money or cars taken from us. The fear has nothing to do with money; it is only about being hurt or killed.
Los Angeles, where I live now, and where the most common self-protection device seems to be a gun, is the most underpoliced major city in the country. The city has fewer than 10,000 officers, fewer than 800 on the streets and roads at any time -- "protecting" millions of people over hundreds of miles.
So you have to hire your own protection -- if you can afford it. In jTC the land of the not-so-free, police protection is no longer a right; it is a privilege for the privileged.
Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.