Wearing the badge

To become a barber in Maryland, you need to have completed 1,200 hours of classroom instruction or 2,250 hours as an apprentice. The state requires licensed foresters to have a four-year college degree in forestry, two years of experience and five references. You even need to pass an exam to work as an interior designer. But all it takes to be given the power to detain people, search them and even arrest them is to fill out a two-page form. No training required, and for all intents and purposes, no oversight. Maryland's "special police" officers have generated periodic complaints and lawsuits, but it's a miracle that nothing worse has happened yet. State lawmakers need to step in with new regulations and oversight.

Under a long-standing but little-known law, private employers can hire so-called special police who are commissioned by the city or state to protect designated properties around businesses and other sites. As The Sun's Justin Fenton reported on Sunday, the city currently has about 50 such officers, most of whom work for large, well-known institutions such as the Johns Hopkins University and Mercy Medical Center, or as bailiffs for the District Court system. Another handful work for private security companies, a church and small businesses. All told, there are about 1,000 private security guards with special police powers across the state.

They operate without the accountability or oversight to which real police officers are subject, and that is a problem. If sworn officers of the city, county or state police overstep their authority, they can expect to be hauled before their department's internal affairs unit, which could open an inquiry leading to disciplinary action or dismissal. But there's no such mechanism to rein in the actions of special police. If they misbehave on duty, there's no one to hold them responsible except the private employer they work for, who may have little incentive to investigate the matter, especially if it could render the employer liable for civil or criminal damages.

And the city and state government shouldn't be so sure that they can't be held liable for misconduct; after all, they are effectively deputizing these officers and granting them police powers.

The lack of accountability and oversight is compounded by the fact that special police don't have to have the same level of training that regular police possess, nor the same mastery of the law. That's because there are no uniform standards for granting special police commissions across the state. As a result, the competence of officers can vary widely. This year, there have been a number of complaints of special police exceeding their authority or otherwise abusing their powers. Residents of Cherry Hill in Baltimore filed a lawsuit this summer accusing special police working for a property management company of "terrorizing" the neighborhood, and a federal lawsuit brought by another local man charged special police with detaining and arresting him on false pretenses.

What is needed is, at minimum, a uniform set of standards for training and knowledge of the law for individuals to qualify for special police commissions. Right now, applicants have to undergo a criminal background check in order to work as special police, but that's about it. Given the confusion over the difference between sworn police officers, special police and ordinary security guards — the latter are to observe and report suspicious activity but not to engage — it's no wonder that residents complain they can't tell the difference between them. Given the real possibility of people who have no connection to law enforcement using fake badges and uniforms to impersonate officers, the situation is ripe for abuse.

State Sen. Brian Frosh, who chairs the Judicial Proceedings Committee, is right to say that it's crazy to let untrained private individuals who are ignorant of the law run around detaining and arresting citizens, and he has suggested the General Assembly look into the problem when it meets next year. Establishing a uniform set of standards and empowering the state police to issue professional licenses for special police comparable to those required by other occupations would be a good first step. The current patchwork of state and city laws not only isn't adequate to protect citizens' civil rights but sooner or later will lead to a tragedy that was all too foreseeable.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad