Though a potent effort to silence dissent is underway in the US, directly doing so would be a flagrant breach of constitutional rights. And so the ostensible explanations for tactically-geared police at peaceful protests and insidious surveillance programs fall under nebulous terms like protecting public safety, keeping the peace or national security. But when Kinder Morgan wanted to push through construction of a controversial gas pipeline, it felt no need for such pretenses—and its justification for hiring off-duty police officers highlights disturbing implications of a dubious national trend: the privatization of American police.
KMI spent more than $50,000 from June to October 2013 to employ uniformed, off-duty police in marked patrol units to “deter protests” in order to avoid “costly delays” for pipeline expansion in an environmentally sensitive area in Pennsylvania. Documents obtained by Earth Island Journal show the self-proclaimed “largest energy infrastructure company in North America” had “experienced protests from local activists” over its Northeast Upgrader Project, and therefore wanted to hire police to“provide a visible presence […] to create a deterrent effect.”
Of course, employing off-duty police for corporate security is not uncommon, but it becomes another matter when they are hired for the purpose of thwarting dissent against a private interest. David Rudovsky, a civil rights lawyer in Philadelphia and a Senior Fellow at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, explained in Earth Island Journal, “It is politically and socially entirely inappropriate for a private company to be able to hire a police department and use its officers to try to intimidate protesters of one stripe or another.”
As Mary Catherine Roper, deputy legal director of the ACLU in Philadelphia, said, “If they are actually being instructed to deter protest that’s not okay. That’s just flat out unconstitutional.”
Therein lies the basis for a legal gray area concerning the blurring between public and monied interests, which has been quietly growing while public focus rests on the parallel issue of police brutality. When an off-duty police officer is hired by a private interest but wears the uniform and drives the vehicle indicative of public duty, whose interests are they protecting? Though municipalities differ in policy detail, police maintain their law enforcement authority, including powers of arrest, when they operate in an off-duty capacity; so when tasked with security for a corporation, they are ostensibly a privatized police force.