Nashville police are trying to push private security firms out of events coverage, using taxpayer dollars and government authority to undercut the competition and dominate the market, according to a lawsuit three companies have filed against the metropolitan government.
Nashville is famous for its public events, from country music concerts to the pro hockey playoff game held there last night. And private firms there have been providing security services for years. But now the police department is taking over security for these events, setting rules and prices that make it next to impossible for private firms to compete. The end result is not just financial harm to the businesses; police officers are banking huge amounts of overtime for event coverage and charging it to taxpayers. Then the police department asks Nashville's metropolitan government for millions more in funding to cover these costs.
Here's a simple example. Organizers of the city's annual gay pride event previously paid a private security firm $20,000 to keep watch over it. In 2017, when police took over the event, they logged $52,000 in overtime costs, according to Nashville records. This was money that Nashville, not the gay pride organizers, paid.
That firm—Comprehensive Security Inc.—is one of the plaintiffs of this lawsuit. The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, accuses the metropolitan government of Nashville and Davidson County of violating federal antitrust laws to create a monopoly for local cops to completely control the market. The plaintiffs are asking for an injunction to stop the Nashville police's behavior.
Gary Blackburn, the attorney representing the firms, alleges that the police department demanded that the companies tell them how much they were paying their guards for events. Then the police dropped their prices to undercut the private competition, providing their services at "a loss" and asking the city for more money to make up for it.
Then, at the start of April, the police implemented a new rule forbidding officers from working events for private security firms entirely. Blackburn explains that the law there requires using guards who have full police training to direct traffic around events. These private firms would sometimes pay off-duty Nashville metro officers for this role, and this change in policy seriously curtails the firms' ability to contract for these jobs. The lawsuit also alleges that Nashville police officials deliberately add loads of red tape when private security firms apply for approval to cover special events. But if customers contract directly with the Nashville police, it's a breeze.
"It is an unprincipled takeover of what had been handled extremely well at no expense to the taxpayers," Blackburn tells Reason.
An investigation by The Tennessean shows the fiscal consequences. Annual overtime costs have ballooned from $6.1 million to $9.1 million in just three years, a rate of increase dramatically higher than the city's 11 percent hike in tourism revenue. The Tennessean calculates the rise is almost entirely due to special event coverage. The police chief has asked for a funding increase of more than $2 million for next fiscal year. At the same time, Nashville is expecting a potential $25 million shortfall next year due to a drop in property tax collections. They're talking about a possible hiring freeze.
The overall impact of these overtime costs extends even further than some citizens may realize. The Tennessean notes that several officers are bringing home more than $40,000 annually just from overtime pay. This dramatically increases the salary calculations that determine their pensions. All this overtime doesn't just consume more of the current fiscal year's budget; it dramatically increases the financial commitment for Nashville's taxpayers when these officers retire.
"A whole lot of older police officers can substantially increase their pensions," Blackburn notes. When the police took over security for Ascend Amphitheater, a prominent music venue in Nashville, it doubled the size of security staff from four to eight—"some of whom sat in patrol cars performing no apparent service," according to the lawsuit.
The city and the police department aren't currently commenting on the lawsuit, but a spokesman for the police department insisted in March that the changes were needed as a result of "violence and terror attacks around the world and in the U.S."
Blackburn denies that this takeover is necessary for public safety, and he notes that these firms were hiring the same officers to perform the same functions until Nashville banned them and forced the officers to run overtime through the city.
"I think a private business should be able to operate without being run out of business by a government entity," Blackburn says. "It's not a liberal or a conservative issue—it's a common sense issue."