Wrong arm of the law

Lemming of the BDA desktop “Funny how naughty dentists always make that one mistake, isn't it?”

A recent article and broadcast on National Public Radio (US) described the proliferation of specialized police forces in the state of Texas, including one that was operated by the State Board of Dental Examiners. No true Monty Python fan could read that report without recalling the Eric Idle character known as Lemming of the BDA – “British Dental Association, that is.”

There's been some public debate about the growth of private police forces in North America, Europe,and throughout the world, and some discussion (though not enough) about the creation of private Fire Departments operated by insurance companies in the United States. But Texas may represent the leading edge of another governmental phenomenon. The issue there is not so much the outsourcing of a government function as it is the fractionation of that function among competing departments.

We don't have a word for this phenomenon yet. Maybe we should call it intrasourcing?

Whatever it's called, the question is this: Is this part of a wider phenomenon or just a Texas aberration, the product of that state's fascination with the breed of professional they still call (with pre-feminist brio) the “Lawman”?

This is, after all, a state that idealizes its Texas Rangers while maintaining a militia-like hostility to the FBI and all other centralized police forces. The Rangers probably have more power and more prestige than any other State Police organization. That might be expected to draw the ire of rebel-minded Texans, since most policing is done at the local level, but they love their Rangers down in Texas.

This writer is American enough to appreciate the Rangers' motto – “One riot, one ranger” – and to have a soft spot for Willie Nelson's appearance as an aging Ranger in an old episode of Miami Vice.

But it must be hard even for a Texan to summon up much affection for the “Enforcement Division” of the State Dental Board, which has 10 investigators, three “administrative technicians,” and a Director. According to its website, the Dental Enforcers “investigate complaints against dentists, dental hygienists, and dental laboratories.” The site adds, “Although the Board has no jurisdiction over unlicensed persons, the Board's investigators often help local prosecutors investigate allegations of practicing dentistry without a license or operating an unregistered laboratory.”

So NPR may be overstating a little by calling them “a police force.” No actual arrests are being made by white-clothed dentists with mirrors on their foreheads, and we may never see a reality show called “D*E*N*T*I*S*T*S.” An earlier article on the topic in the Austin American-Statesman was more balanced when it described the proliferating organizations as “police agencies.” Still, in a world where privacy hangs in the balance, it's disturbing to know that investigative agencies have been formed by the State Pharmacy Board, a Municipal Water Authority, and a private Cattle Raising Organization, among others.

Questions of jurisdiction gets complicated by the spread of all these police forces. Consider this excerpt from the American-Statesman piece:

This month, a City of Austin animal control officer was charged with livestock theft for allegedly making off with seven head of cattle belonging to a Caldwell County rancher. But it wasn't Austin police or Travis County sheriff's deputies who made the bust.

Instead, the investigation and arrest were carried out by “special rangers” commissioned by the Texas Department of Public Safety but employed by the Texas and Southwestern Cattle Raisers Association. With the exception of issuing traffic citations, the privately hired rangers enjoy the same privileges as police officers to “prevent or abate the commission of an offense involving livestock or related property.”

Public safety is an even more serious concern. Officers from the Texas Beverage Commission shot and gravely wounded a man who was “driving erratically,” in the newspaper's words, despite being unrecognizable as law enforcement in their street clothes and unmarked cars.

Clearly in this, as in all matters, they “do things bigger in Texas.” Two more statistics: There is one sworn police officer for every 300 people in the state, and the Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education monitors 2,615 law enforcement agencies.

Not 2,615 officers – 2,615 agencies.

Something's out of control in the Lone Star state. Which gets us back to our original question: Is Texas an exception, or is it the leading edge of a new trend? In a widely-reported story, a town in rural Montana outsourced the policing of its jail to a private police company last month, unaware that the company's president was – in the words of the Associated Press – “a convicted con artist.” But is there a trend?

An excellent piece of investigative reporting in the Washington Post suggests an answer. Journalist Amy Goldstein writes: “The more than 1 million contract security officers, and an equal number of guards estimated to work directly for U.S. corporations, dwarf the nearly 700,000 sworn law enforcement officers in the United States.”Some warn,” adds Goldstein, “… that the constitutional safeguards that cover police questioning and searches do not apply in the private sector.”

Private police forces are not a new phenomenon. Firms like Pinkerton and Burns routinely provided security forces and even attacked striking workers in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. But they had withdrawn into the background until the Republican-led privatization trend of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The presence of armed individuals without government checks on their behavior can result in death or injury, as the shooting in Austin illustrates.

As for the Texas problem – the spread of multiple police forces within a single state – no national study has yet been performed. But the private-police problem can only be compounded by interagency squabbles over jurisdiction and enforcement.

After reading the Dental Police stories the old theme song kept running through my head: “Lemming, Lemming, Lemming of the BDA …” But the story may not be so funny. Somebody who winds up on the wrong end of, say, a Browning 9mm – a good sized gun for “concealed carry” by private cops in street clothes – may find themselves wondering: Who's the lemming now?