Michael Youlen gained his police powers using a little-known provision of state law that allows private citizens to petition the courts for the authority to carry a gun, display a badge and make arrests. The number of “special conservators of the peace” — or SCOPs, as they are known — has doubled in Virginia over the past decade to roughly 750, according to state records.
Youlen said he left to start a private investigator service and then became a SCOP after reading about a housing community in Stafford County called Aquia Harbour that had its own private police force.
DHS is behind this dangerous national trend.
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The growth is mirrored nationally in the ranks of private police, who increasingly patrol corporate campuses, neighborhoods and museums as the demand for private security has increased and police services have been cut in some places.
Experts say Virginia’s increase is SCOPs is part of a nationwide uptick in private security that began in the 1970s and accelerated after the Sept. 11 attacks. The number of private security guards — nearly 1.1 million — dwarfs the 640,000 public police officers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Most SCOPs patrol corporate campuses, work for neighborhood associations or perform code enforcement for counties or cities, but Youlen has pushed the model further by creating his own “department” and turning policing into an enterprise.
A 2012 study from the Illinois College of Law found that private police are “chronically undertrained” and nearly a third nationwide face almost no regulation.
The trend has raised concerns in Virginia and elsewhere, because these armed officers often receive a small fraction of the training and oversight of their municipal counterparts. Arrests of private police officers and incidents involving SCOPs overstepping their authority have also raised concerns.
In neighboring D.C., a similar designation called “special police” requires 40 hours of training. Maryland officials leave instruction to the discretion of employers but have no requirements. Other states have similar systems.
“There are a number of groups we regulate far more stringently than SCOPs carrying a gun,” said Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, speaking prior to the passage of the bill.
In 2012, more than 20 residents of the Cherry Hill in Baltimore filed a $25 million lawsuit against a Cleveland security company, claiming its guards had abused residents and violated their civil rights by stopping them illegally and making false arrests. Two of the three guards named in the suit were “special police,” a designation similar to SCOPs in Virginia.
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