Rise of private VA police may lead to questionable practices and arrests

Private police have authority to make arrests but lack the training and oversight of public police; this may raise the risk of wrongful stops and arrests.

In Virginia, citizens can request legal authority to bear weapons, carry badges and make arrests. The number of these private police officers working in the state has doubled over the last decade, according to The Washington Post. Unfortunately, these private officers are not held to the same standards as public police operating in Manassas and other areas. The increase in private police has fueled concerns about these officers engaging in questionable practices and violating people's rights.

Limited training, accountability

Private police officers typically patrol private areas, such as neighborhoods, and supplement the services that public police provide. These private officers often deal with minor offenses, such a traffic violations and some drug crimes. More serious offenses are turned over to state police.

Even though private officers generally focus on minor crimes, critics worry about the potential for questionable practices and rights violations. These issues may arise due to the following factors:

  • Private officers have limited training and oversight. In Virginia, people only have to train for 40 hours to become armed private officers. No overseeing authority tracks complaints against these officers. Similarly, no authority monitors the conduct or arrest records of these officers.
  • Private officers may not have to meet the same standards as public police officers. Public police are not permitted to engage in certain practices, such as profiling based on race. When private officers act on public property, they may be held to the same standards. However, this may not be the case on private property.
  • The authority of private officers can be unclear. Private officers can perform prescribed actions within certain geographic areas. However, citizens facing arrest are often not aware of these limitations. Furthermore, private officers can legally identify themselves as "police." Many citizens may not realize they are interacting with someone who is not a public police officer.

Incidents in other states have highlighted the potential for rights violations. For example, residents of one Baltimore neighborhood alleged that private police performed illegal traffic stops and made false arrests. Unfortunately, due to unfamiliarity with laws regarding reasonable suspicion and arrest procedures, many citizens may not recognize when these violations have occurred.

Potential coming changes

The Virginia legislature recently passed a bill that would address a few of these issues. Under the bill, training requirements for armed private officers increase from 40 hours to 140 hours. The bill also stipulates that private officers need special court approval to identify themselves as police officers.

Still, these changes may not fully protect citizens. The 140 hours of training is markedly less than the training civic police officers complete, which ranges from 580 to 1,200 hours. Additionally, some lawmakers believe that private officers should be limited from identifying themselves as police under any circumstances. Future legislation could address these issues.

In the meantime, the risk of Virginia residents experiencing unlawful stops, false arrests or other rights violations may be significant. For this reason, anyone who has been arrested and faces criminal charges should consider consulting with a defense attorney. An attorney may be able to offer advice on a person's rights and options given the situation.

Keywords: unlawful, stop, arrest