Conceptualizing the Private Police

46 Pages Posted: 3 Feb 2005 Last revised: 25 Jun 2013

See all articles by Elizabeth E. Joh

Elizabeth E. Joh

University of California, Davis - School of Law


The war on terrorism has brought new urgency to a subject that remains poorly understood: the private police. The debate surrounding the creation of the Transportation Security Administration and the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal share a common question: what is the proper relationship between the state and policing? This Article lays out the conceptual framework needed to develop a response. There is much confusion about the private police - much of which can be attributed to their inadequate conceptualization. Is private policing a continuation of longstanding historical practice? Is it related to the privatization of other government services? What analytic approach is most suitable? The little scholarship on private policing that exists offers interpretive approaches that are sometimes inconsistent, or only partially congruent. Likewise, legal scholarship has often assumed without discussion who the private police are before proceeding to traditional doctrinal analysis. Even worse, when courts talk about private policing, they make unstated assumptions about their topic that are sometimes erroneous. Yet these disagreements and misunderstandings remain unexamined. Private police now employ more people and spend more dollars than our public police agencies do. What is more, private police are increasingly referred to as front-line soldiers in the war against terrorism. Yet when courts, commentators, and lawmakers discuss the private police, they demonstrate only a shallow or incomplete understanding of the nature and extent of the work private police perform. To that end, in this Article I offer a socio-legal approach to the problem: how should we think about private policing? First, I examine and critique the dominant interpretive perspectives on private policing. Second, based upon a pluralistic understanding, I offer a typology of private policing that will help guide the analysis of commentators, courts, and lawmakers. I then suggest some ways in which the perspective that I have outlined can enrich or, in some cases, correct some views of private policing.

Keywords: sociology, private police, police, crime prevention, privatization

Suggested Citation

Joh, Elizabeth E., Conceptualizing the Private Police. Utah Law Review, Vol. 2005, p. 573, 2005, UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 27, 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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