The millionaires building private police forces in the US: vigilantes or neighbourhood watch?
By freelance correspondent Elle Hardy
Sidney Torres IV is a property developer and reality television star with a fondness for making deals. But unlike a similar figure in the White House, Torres is not elected to any political office.
Instead, Torres, who was a millionaire by age 23, has used his money to start his own private police force in the historic French Quarter in New Orleans — one of several such “vigilante” groups bankrolled by businessmen to spring up in US cities in recent years.
The French Quarter Task Force uses off-duty uniformed police employed at premium wages. Residents and visitors report crime via an app.
“I started this out of need,” the 43-year-old says from his New Orleans office, where walls are adorned with framed newspaper clippings of his exploits.
In 2015, Torres — who is known for his real estate advice in the reality show The Deed — says his home in the French Quarter was robbed, and a friend of his mother’s was assaulted on the street. When the mayor did not return his call, he decided to take action.
“I did a commercial to put residents on air who were robbed and beat up to let people see them visually. I knew [the mayor] would see these and pick up the phone and call me.”
The mayor at the time, Mitch Landrieu, responded in the media, inspiring Torres to “put my money where my mouth is”. His French Quarter Task Force was born.
It was initially paid for by Torres, but is now funded to the tune of US$1.2 million annually through a voluntary occupancy tax paid by local hotels. Torres remains a spiritual leader of sorts, seeking to “apply the same type of management as my garbage business in the fighting of crime”.
‘Cops are the biggest gang in America’
But in late October, the Task Force broadened its definition of crime. Torres posted a video on social media stating that he was launching a crackdown on “aggressive panhandling” — targeting homeless people and buskers in a district that sees 17 million visitors each year.
“These are individuals who have extensive criminal records, are urinating on people’s doorsteps and blocking driveways, and carrying weapons to harm individuals,” Torres says.
But speaking to the homeless people in the French Quarter paints a different picture.
People line up in the streets of New Orleans to take photos of Jennifer — but she is no celebrity. The 40-year-old homeless woman is a casualty in Torres’ war.
Jennifer, who has been living on the streets for eight-and-a-half years, objects to “snitches” taking photos of her and reporting her “mere existence” to the police.
Joshua, and his dog Wolf, with Jennifer on the streets of the French Quarter (ABC News: Elle Hardy)
“Homeless people need to sleep. I go to lie on the heat grates half a block off Bourbon Street, and within five minutes the cops are waking you up, saying ‘get up or you’re going to jail.'”
“They keep moving you, or saying you can’t go places,” adds Joshua, 24. “I’ve seen people try to stand up for themselves and get thrown onto their backs. Cops are the biggest gang in America.”
‘The law is lagging far behind’
The French Quarter Task Force says it is a neighbourhood watch program, not a vigilante group. But its emergence speaks to a wider trend of private police forces maintained by wealthy individuals in cities across America, existing in grey areas of the law.
“Private police forces aren’t governed by the constitution — and that makes them in my opinion quite dangerous,” says constitutional lawyer and Rutherford Institute president John Whitehead. “They get a free pass, and that’s a scary thing. The law is lagging far behind.”
The American Council for Civil Liberties says that private forces are not subject to Freedom of Information laws, meaning that they are not required to disclose information about their operations.
In 2010, businessman Dan Gilbert moved his company Quicken Loans to Detroit, where 80 per cent of the residents are black and 35 per cent live in poverty. As the city was sliding into bankruptcy as a result of the 2007 financial crisis, Gilbert was installing his own security apparatus to protect his substantial investments in the city.
French Quarter Task Force operations manager Robert Simms points out crime locations on a map (ABC News: Elle Hardy)
In the eight-square-mile downtown area surrounding his company’s headquarters, Gilbert has erected 500 high-powered telescopic cameras, employing private security contractors to monitor the streets and cross-coordinate with Detroit’s police databases.
Other cities around the country are following suit. Facebook recently paid for a police substation near its business campus in San Francisco, while one 2016 report said that in Washington DC, 120 private companies employed 16,580 law enforcement agents.
“There is a certain paranoia about the actions of private citizens,” adds Whitehead. “Yet crime is at an all-time low. It doesn’t make sense.”
Louisiana State University criminology professor Peter L. Scharf says that studies have shown that additional policing does not correlate with a reduction in crime. He believes that we need to look beyond crime statistics to understand what is driving the private policing industry.
“There’s a suspicion of government, particularly in this Trump era. Municipal governments are being designed to work poorly, so people say ‘why not outsource this function’,” he says. “Almost 50 per cent of a publicly employed police officer’s salary is deferred compensation in terms of retirement plans and medical insurance. There’s a temptation to de-obligate the government.”
Identical laws struck down
Eric Tars, legal director of the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (NLCHP) says that the increasing criminalisation of homelessness is a nationwide problem.
“There has been a dramatic increase in cities passing these kind of anti-homeless ordinances. Of 187 major cities, almost half of them have laws that prohibit sitting or lying down in public,” he says.
He notes that there have been a number of court cases in recent years that have struck down identical laws to the New Orleans ordinance, as they violate the First Amendment of the Constitution that guarantees free speech.
Meanwhile, unsheltered homelessness is growing across the country, and social services cannot keep up.
“While the Great Recession has ended for Wall Street, it certainly hasn’t ended for main street,” Tars says. “Instead of a response to the growing homelessness in our communities — which has increased over 40 years since the federal housing budget was halved in the 1980s — the response has been that we need to push these ‘others’ out of view.”
The NLCHP’s research has shown that it is two to three times more expensive to run the cycle of criminalisation for the homeless than it is to provide housing in the first place.
“Providing affordable housing is more effective than spending time and money on vigilante groups,” Tars says.
Private police are better paid
French Quarter district police commander Nick Gernon says his force has been slowly eroded from 175 officers in the late 1990s to 104 today. Citywide, he says they need 1,500 officers, but have only 1,150.
The police working the FQTF detail are paid better by the hour than their regular policing shifts and are getting better results. Gernon says the number of armed robberies in 2018 is on track to be half the average annual figure in the years before the task force was established.
Overall crime has reduced slightly this year in the city of New Orleans, but nothing like it has in the tourist centre — home to many of Torres’ lucrative investments — meaning that much of it has simply moved into neighbouring areas. Now, those funding the force want to target more than violent crime.
“There are people living on the streets in conscious repudiation of societal norms,” Gernon says of the Torres-led crackdown on the homeless.
“We are conducting enforcement sweeps for aggressive panhandling because our quality of life is important.
“We are accountable to the people paying for the Task Force — the hospitality industry.”