The Paradox of Private Policing

85 Pages Posted: 4 Jan 2005 Last revised: 25 Jun 2013

See all articles by Elizabeth E. Joh

Elizabeth E. Joh

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: 2005


Those who fear the social and political effects by the war on terrorism focus on the increased powers of public police, but they ignore another powerful group: the private police. It is often difficult to distinguish private from public police officers. Yet the law sees matters differently, by recognizing an absolute distinction between the two groups. This separation also leaves largely unregulated the private police, who are by far the largest provider of policing services in the United States. While the law multiplies distinctions between private and public police, the functions, responsibilities, and appearance of the two are increasingly difficult to tell apart. This is the paradox of private policing. Courts have not developed comprehensive rules governing private police, and statutory regulation is minimal. Legal scholars have paid them hardly any attention. This article begins to remedy that ignorance, by drawing a contrast between the rigid legal conception of the private police, on the one hand, and their increasingly complicated and shifting social role on the other. Drawing upon materials from ethnographic observation, this article argues that private police participate in much of the policing work that their public counterparts do. Exactly what constitutes policing and who may legitimately call themselves police are now contested issues. As a consequence, the Article argues that the regulatory framework governing the police, by giving insufficient consideration to these increasingly unsettled questions, creates legal distinctions at odds with actual police work. Furthermore, the contemporary proposition that private police ought to serve as partners with public police in a common enterprise of crime prevention must be met with caution, for these partnerships carry unresolved questions as to the proper balance of burdens, benefits, and controls that are distributed between the public and private sectors.

Keywords: police, privatization, criminal procedure, private police, crime prevention

Suggested Citation

Joh, Elizabeth E., The Paradox of Private Policing (2005). UC Davis Law, Legal Studies Research Paper No. 23, Available at SSRN:

Elizabeth E. Joh (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

400 Mrak Hall Drive
Davis, CA 95616-5201
United States

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