San Francisco's Hired Guns

These police have to satisfy their customers-or go out of business.San Francisco's experience shows the advantage of private policing.


The uniform they wear looks just like any other police officer's: navy blue shirt and pants, a silver badge, a leather belt with radio, nightstick, and gun attached, and the unmistakable hat. It is only on closer examination that one notices that the badge has six points instead of seven, the buttons are silver rather than gold, and the shoulder patch states clearly, "Patrol Special."

But what really sets San Francisco's unique patrol specials apart from most law enforcement agencies is that they are, in officialese, "noncompensated civil service employees." They are entrepreneurs who do not receive a single cent from the city for the patrol work they do. Instead, they are paid directly by their clients to protect property and persons on their beat.


Government provision of law enforcement services is so taken for granted that we forget how recent the concept of public police protection is. In 18th-century England, the very idea of a public police was opposed vehemently on principle. Most Englishmen believed it would leave them wide open to a police state. The transition from that opposition to today's concept of protection—as somehow being necessarily a public monopoly—began with the establishment of the first public police force in the Anglo-American world, the London Metropolitan Police, in 1829. While most American colonies developed a system of night watches from about the 1630s, New York City formed the first day and night police force in America in 1945.

Meanwhile, the residents of San Francisco in the heady days of the Gold Rush era badly needed some form of protection from their less-peaceable members. Before the San Francisco Police Department was instituted, groups of private security companies did the job. Pinkerton and Wells Fargo were the best-known security forces; they handled stage coach runs, robbery prevention and investigations, bodyguard functions, whatever needed to be done.

The geographic layout of the city made even these services inadequate, however. Merchants and homeowners hired gun-carrying lawmen to patrol their property, and soon these property divisions merged into beats. Eventually, certain people claimed ownership to beats against other claimants. The police department decided it was time to step in.

The chief of police sectioned off the city into beats and sold each to the highest bidder. Beat owners were deputized by the chief and made special police officers. Once they paid off the city for ownership of the beat, the patrol specials were on their own.

In 1899, the city charter gave responsibility for the patrol specials to the Police Commission. The commission regulates the sale of all beats (from owner to owner), the training of patrol specials and their assistants, and the prosecution of any erring patrol special.


"The patrol special officer is strictly in business for himself," Officer Wassil Rolovich of the police department stresses. "The city does not receive any monies from the beats." Rolovich is the officer in charge of the patrol specials and supervises the background checks and training courses the specials undergo. "There are approximately 60 beats owned by about 30 owners"—Rolovich points out a map of San Francisco, with each beat shaded in a different color. The figures shift because an owner might decide to split up a beat or to patrol two adjoining beats. The number of assistants per beat also varies because of the different character of each section.

Beats that sold for $100 to $400 in the 1880s now go from $15,000 to $250,000—approximately 10 times the income the beat earns. Owners solicit business from the merchants and residents in their beat exclusively, usually by word of mouth but occasionally by writing letters or by leaving a business card.

Potential patrol specials undergo rigid qualifying tests. Applicants, who must be between the ages of 21 and 40 and reside within five miles of San Francisco, first have to pass a background check done by the police department. Some beat owners, such as John Candido, do an additional check on prospective assistants. "It takes about three weeks to check a person," he says grimly. "I'm accountable for my assistants. I look for family problems, bounced checks, bad finances. I don't need a guy who's got problems—I have enough problems on my beat."

Then the patrol special must take the arrest and firearms course at the police academy, a community college-funded course. It includes ethics; basic criminal law; laws of arrest, search, and seizure; self-defense; first aid; and rigorous range firearms training. Patrol specials have to requalify their shooting skills at the firing range every six months for as long as they are in business. A hefty Rules and Procedures Manual governs their work.

Uniforms and equipment are provided by the beat owners, who most often do the patrolling themselves. Sample expenses: a badge cost $17, insurance runs to about $360, regulation jacket is $80, leather belt $15, radio $2,000, pager $300, car radio another $2,000, and bullet-proof vest $250. Patrol specials also use their own vehicles for surveillance.


The beat owners themselves are a diverse breed. The first Chinese beat owner explains it this way, "Every individual has his own philosophy. So does every beat owner. And all the 2,000 police officers in the department do too. My philosophy? What I promise my client is what I do," Kung Kai Chiu proudly states.

While Chiu considers his beat primarily a business and a service, John Candido is more fierce about his involvement. "I am obsessed with my work," the stocky Italian says. "If one of my customers gets hurt, it drives me out of my mind."

Linnea Grebmeier is less dramatic about her commitment, but just as proud. "We give good service," she asserts. "My husband and I own adjoining beats and take care of about 215 homes and businesses between us. Our service can consist of drive-by to constant surveillance, depending on what our client desires. The client can dictate what degree of security he wishes."

Security is the key word for the patrol specials. They see themselves as an addition to the San Francisco Police Department, acting as the more-personal security arm of the police. "We are a constant protective measure to people," Candido says. "We go into the same places every night. Like a piece of machinery that keeps coming back, sweeping up what was left behind before."


Each patrol special is assigned to one of the nine district stations in the city. He or she starts off duty by signing in at the district station and reading up on the reports and orders of the day. During the eight-hour shift, the patrol special must call in every two hours from a police-box phone to give his location.

Patrol specials, while committed only to patrolling their clients' properties, must respond to any all-points bulletin on the radio. They need not take preventive action, but they must stop any crime they see being committed, whether the victim is a client or not. Most specials are proud of the commendations they have received from the police department, and they all have their own horror stories to tell. Some specials aggressively go after lawbreakers; some try as much as possible not to go beyond their boundaries.

Chiu, for instance, just fired one of his assistants for being, as he put it, "a hotshot." He shakes his head at the memory. "We pay for our own things and can't trespass except on clients' property, where we have permission. We use our own vehicles and don't get paid to chase cars," he argues. "I want somebody to just do the job, that's it." Being liable does make for caution, as does the fact that beat owners pay for their assistants' compensation and insurance. Chiu also points out that time spent on extra police matters takes him or his assistant away from the patrol, which clients may not appreciate.

When they detect a crime being committed, patrol specials take charge until a regular policeman arrives. If a regular is not available, they function as the regular and book the suspect. Grebmeier says one of her main problems is the drunks who sleep on the sidewalks in her beat, and she is constantly asking them to move on. Like the other patrol specials, she will watch any suspicious-looking persons until they move on.

Most patrols last from 8:30 or 9:00 P.M. to 4:30 or 5:00 A.M. But depending on the agreement between the client and the special, this can change to 24-hour service, to a one-time drive-by, or to a foot patrol of the grounds six times a night. Specials can also give month-end reports, can act as bodyguards or additional security at parties—especially those given by consulates—and will even rotate house lights and pick up mail when a client goes on vacation.

The cost of the service ranges from about $30 a month for residential homes to anywhere near $500 for apartment complexes and businesses. "It isn't as lucrative as people think," Candido claims. "Lots of old-timers don't really make much. Those who do are the owners of, for instance, Westlake and Stonestown (shopping centers). They might take in $200,000 a year and net $40,000 after paying for assistants, equipment, uniforms."


Patrol specials are particularly proud of their quick response time. "I can be at a client's house in three to five minutes," Candido says. "My response time is easy to maintain because I don't have as many people to answer to as the car in my area does." Specials are equipped with paging systems for emergencies while they are on patrol, and they try to be available any time during the day for special requests.

"Most people forget your time span," Chiu explains. "I am the first person they think of, so I try to help. I don't charge for overtime—I consider it a public service." Candido recounts the time a client called, frantically saying someone was trying to axe him. Candido suggested he call the police, but his client was too hysterical, "So I went over in my T-shirt and brought my gun. Fortunately, the guy with the axe was gone by the time I got there."

The patrol can be a hair-raising experience. Some specials own beats that are pretty rough, and most of them patrol alone. "I work out at the gym several hours a day, especially since I'm a small man," Candido illustrates. "The gun is the most useless piece of material we have. The ability to cope with all kinds of people is our best asset, as well as being able to sniff out the troublemakers." Candido also owns an awesome Doberman. He takes the dog along when he sees a broken window or open door, to go through the building with him and sniff out the intruder.

Specials patrol the same beat night after night. They get a feel for the area, a sense of when something's not quite right, and a knowledge of the people who live and work there.

They are also very careful because of the responsibility. Beat owners can be charged formally and brought before the Police Commission. "If one of our guys does something wrong, we come down on him like a sack of hot sand," Candido states flatly. "Before the chief of police can get to us, we get to us."

And Chiu, with the shrewdness of the entrepreneur, mentions what is perhaps the best thing about the patrol specials: "With the city police, if you're dissatisfied with their service, all you can do is complain. Patrol specials? You can fire us." Ah, yes—the beautiful simplicity of the free market.


San Francisco's patrol specials provide ample evidence that protection can be viewed as merely another commodity, like food or shelter, to be bought and sold in the marketplace. For a long time the gospel according to economists has been that certain goods—protection and law enforcement prime candidates among them—can only be provided adequately by a public monopoly. But there's plenty that's uneconomic about that arrangement.

Private police protection allows its clients to choose specific services as best fits their needs. The public system, presuming that people's preferences are uniform, provides uniform service. As the San Francisco experience shows, some people prefer more frequent patrol, some are content with once-a-night service, and so on, in endless variety. The clients of private police can thriftily assign their employees to concentrate their time and effort on the services they find are most necessary.

Since private police cater to a multiplicity of needs, they eventually develop specialized expertise that public police cannot hope to obtain. For example, the existing railway police—privately recruited, trained, and paid—spend all their time preventing crime on the railroad and are therefore intimate with the symptoms and systems of railway crime. Public officers do such a variety of jobs, over large areas of cities that they do not get the more intimate "feel" for an area that the private police do.

Another advantage of private police service is the time factor. As it is today, we all pay for 24-hour public police protection. Most of us don't need 24-hour protection. With private police, citizens can hire their law enforcers only during peak hours when crimes are most likely to occur. Kalamazoo, Michigan, for 15 years beginning in 1955, hired a private protection agency, Charles Service, Inc., to patrol the streets and control traffic. The private police were paid by the hour and were used only during peak periods, such as high-traffic hours. The arrangement was later declared illegal, as William Wooldridge states in Uncle Sam the Monopoly Man, because "the judge who administered the coup de grace was offended that anyone should make a profit out of law enforcement, and apparently did not consider it relevant that a profit-making company might do the job more cheaply than a non-profit-making sheriff."

As the public monopoly on police protection expands, more money is spent on management and paperwork than on actual protection services. Ostrom and Parks analyzed data from the President's Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice and found that "when multiplicity was measured by the number of police departments per 100,000 population, the evidence strongly supported the. . .conclusion: the more jurisdictions per 100,000 population, the lower are the per capita expenditures for police services." And, asked about the quality of police services, citizens in smaller jurisdictions gave higher ratings than those in centralized jurisdictions.

Another interesting analysis by Bish and Ostrom showed that higher professionalism reduced rather than enhanced police performance in comparison to less-professional, service-oriented police departments. Bureaucracies, such as that created by a centralized and monopolistic public police, do not reward innovation and cost cutting and fail to foster a feeling of responsibility toward the clients, the citizens, who pay the taxes that support them.

With private police, the client is all-important. As patrol special Chiu says, "You can fire us." And that makes for good protection. It seems only logical, doesn't it?

Christine Dorffi is a San Francisco-based free-lance writer. She has in the past worked for several magazines.

Linnea Grebmeier

Linnea Grebmeier first learned to shoot when she started dating her present husband seven years ago. Her only previous police experience was clerical work with the San Mateo, California, and Michigan police departments. Today, she is the owner of a primarily residential beat adjoining her husband's in a plush section of San Francisco, and she wears the gun faithfully.

"You have to be a pretty sterling character before you can buy a beat," she admonishes us ruefully. She enjoys her work—although the night hours are hard for this day person—and has four assistants on duty between the hours of 8:30 P.M. and 6:00 A.M., seven nights a week.

She is trying to build up her list of clients and says that it changes constantly because of people who move or pass away or people who request service only when they go on vacation. "A lot of consulates and other people call us when they have a party," Grebmeier notes. "We check the homes of new clients, too, for proper locks, lighting and security, and recommend some if needed."

"The client may want his or her home patrolled ten times a night, with six of those a complete foot patrol of the premises," she says. "We'll do what our client desires. A client can page us if he observes anything suspicious, and we respond immediately. And if I got enough requests for daytime service, I'd do it."

"When I first bought the beat, there weren't that many clients. So I'd go door to door, every night, Saturdays and Sundays, soliciting." Grebmeier and her husband now have about 215 clients between them, so the work has paid off. Special services, such as escorting someone from the airport or taking deposits to the bank, are easily arranged with the Grebmeiers.

Grebmeier has learned to enjoy shooting as a sport. "But I hope I never have to kill anyone," she mutters as she displays her bullet-proof vest, which she religiously wears every time she goes on patrol.

"We work arm-in-arm with the police department," she says, "and our major goal, at all times, is the safety and peace of mind of our clients, only, and their property."

John Candido

John Candido reminds you of those heroes in a Western: he talks rough and acts rough and sees himself as the protector of the good. The colorful president of the Patrol Special Police Officers Association has been in the private law enforcement business for 26 years now. He originally wanted to become a regular police officer but couldn't make the height requirement at the time. "Now," he says, "they have guys up to here," he gestures at his chin.

"I have one of the roughest beats," he announces. "Burglars, pimps, prostitutes, drug addicts—you name it, I got it. I always kiss my wife (we've been married for 23 years) before I leave because, who knows, I might not come back. Lots of people think our work is like a Hollywood movie," he grimaces, "when sometimes I take a bath three times a night!"

"You have to really like people to be able to cope with the classical variation you meet here," he points his stick down the length of the neon-lit street. "You have to be streetwise, learn to talk their language." He goes into one of his accounts, a rather shabby hotel. There are drunks lying on the stairs, and he picks up a bottle of wine and tosses it into the garbage. "Hey, I told you no drinking in here." The drunk mumbles and gets up. The doors to the rooms are scratched and kicked in; most have padlocks installed by the guests. Candido stops off in the communal kitchen and notices an electric burner glowing. "See, this is the type of thing I look out for, it could have caused a fire." He turns the burner off and yells a goodnight to the manager as he leaves. Candido says he stops in at most of his clients' places every night just to let them know he's around. He has over a hundred clients on his beat, mostly large apartment complexes, hotels, and restaurants.

"When I see a broken window," he says, "I report it to the police station and stay put until the regulars get in. If the property belongs to my client, I stay or put a man there all night long."

"I don't let people sell narcotics on my beat," he adds. "It takes me at least six months to clean most places out. If I let the street get dirty, I'll lose my customers. Sometimes, the hotels want someone kicked out, but they don't want them arrested. So they call me, and I go up and ask them to leave."

Candido says he was influential 25 years ago in making patrol specials go through the police academy training course. He has about five assistants (most beat owners share assistants, depending on the work load) but works most nights.

"I love street action," he states as he maneuvers his car around a hill. "I like going into tough places, because it's a challenge. I wouldn't enjoy an easy beat. In fact," he nods, "I'm looking for a harder beat, maybe the Tenderloin." Candido predicts that private security will become an ever-bigger business in the next 10 years. One thing is certain—he'll be right in the middle of the action.

Kung Kai Chiu
Kung Ming Chiu

The Chiu brothers arrived here in the United States from Hong Kong in 1962. Kai dates his interest in law enforcement to his school days in Hong Kong. "I had 7 years of ROTC in school. And back in Hong Kong, all of my teachers were from the military. The military also served as the police in the old days." He studied civil engineering at Berkeley and is now a professional engineer, as is his brother, Kung Ming Chiu.

Ming served as a reserve deputy sheriff in Alameda while he was doing highway engineering for the county and was moved to Hayward because he was the only Chinese-speaking officer they had. Kai also took the reserve officers' training course in 1972, and on June 1, 1977, he bought the beat he and his brother now patrol.

"When we started, we had only ten small ($10-$20) accounts. The previous owner had owned the beat for 17 years and had let it slide. He retired making $600-$700 a month," Kai explains. "When we started to get new accounts, there were misunderstandings. How can policemen take money? people asked. So we told them to call the police department and get our credentials, and they did. Now we have about 40 accounts, equally split between residential and business."

"People aren't used to seeing minorities as police officers," Ming shrugs. "We have to prove ourselves, especially since we are small in build."

"Like the store last week," Kai reminds his brother. "I saw four guys last week bothering the owner of a store, so I went in and arrested the boys. The store wasn't our client, but the owner signed up the next day. Some try our services for 'a while,'" Kai adds, "but they always end up signing up."

The Chius are particularly proud of a leather store that became an account of theirs several months ago. They haven't had a single robbery since then. "It's the degree of security you want," Kai declares. "People say, 'No, I don't need to sign up, I have insurance, I have burglar alarms.' But we can do something a machine can't do. Machines don't have arms and legs to run after people."

When asked about the danger, Kai smiles. "We can't be scared. When you're in the middle of it all, you're very calm. All your senses are concentrated on, watching those guys—four guys mean eight hands—and you're professionally trained to think of that. Afterwards," he grins, "then you get scared. You start thinking of what might have happened."