When 'Sam Spade' is the police
By Alana Semuels
Residents across cash-strapped states are increasingly being forced to turn to private detectives as cities and towns cut police forces to contend with deep budget cuts
AMDEN, N.J. (MCT) In an office in a sleepy town in southern New Jersey, Harry Glemser's phone rang. With no buxom secretary to take a message, he answered it himself.
It was a dame, looking to hire a private eye.
But this was no scene from a noir novel. The woman was calling because someone in a car kept lurking in her driveway, the engine running, when her husband wasn't home. She'd called the police, but they couldn't help. She hoped Glemser could.
Detectives like Glemser across cash-strapped states have been getting more calls like these as cities and towns cut their police forces to contend with deep budget cuts. New Jersey alone lost 4,200 officers from 2008 to 2011, according to the Policemen's Benevolent Assn., which tracks the state's most recent data. As police focus more on responding to crime rather than preventing it, private detectives and security firms are often taking on the roles that police once did, investigating robberies, checking out alibis, looking into threats.
"The public is frustrated by the police," said Glemser, a retired cop of 63 whose gold chains, white hair and bulky body might make a stranger worry he's on the wrong side of the law. "The citizenry is quick to say that the police don't do anything for them. They should be saying the police can't do anything for them because of this budgetary issue, this manpower problem, this directive we have that came down from the chief."
Private detectives are just one piece of the private sector security and policing services that people are increasingly turning to as they worry about crime. The U.S. private security industry is expected to grow 6.3% a year to $19.9 billion by 2016, according to a study by security research group Freedonia Group Inc. Even some in the public sector are trying to tap into the industry to save money; one Tennessee power department laid off security officers last year and replaced them with security technology and private contractors.
In California, where many cash-strapped cities cut police budgets during the recession, residents are turning to detectives, security firms and even the Internet.
After police cuts in Oakland, resident Dabney Lawless encouraged 400 neighbors to sign up on a website so they could send alerts to one another when they noticed suspicious people around; she also pays extra to an alarm company to drive through the neighborhood. Ron Cancio, the manager of a Stockton security firm, said that since the city's budget battles, residents often have called his firm for minor complaints, because they know he'll respond more quickly than the police.
Of course, not everyone can afford private police help.
Roger Arrella, the owner of TSInvestigations in Corona, said he's getting a lot more calls from people who say police won't help them in investigating burglaries, suspicious suicides or identity theft. But once they hear his rates, which are around $150 an hour, they usually balk.
"We get the phone calls people are upset that someone broke into their house, or stole their car, and the police aren't doing what they should be doing," he said. "But then you tell them the price, and they say, well, maybe it's not worth it to me."
It's another facet of how income inequality is playing out in America as cities are forced to cut their budgets, even police protection is more accessible to those with cash.
"Wealthy neighborhoods are buying themselves more police protection than poor neighborhoods," said Samuel Walker, emeritus professor of criminal justice at the University of Nebraska at Omaha and the author of 13 books on policing.
Latch Raghu, for instance, hired a private eye after his 1986 Buick Grand Regal National, worth $100,000, was stolen in Belleville, N.J. Though police had access to street cameras and Raghu had some ideas as to who might have stolen it, he couldn't get the case moving. Raghu hired Joseph Blaettler, an ex-cop who runs East Coast Private Investigations of New Jersey.
"The police came and took reports, and I went to them a week and a half later, and they weren't doing anything," Raghu said. "I had to take steps of my own."
Inequality has always been present: Millionaires hire bodyguards, rich neighborhoods pay for private security patrols. But this budget crisis makes the difference even more pronounced, Walker said.
"We've never had budget crises like this it's a whole new situation," Walker said. "It's entirely possible people just stop calling the police because they don't expect anything, or take more protective measures, or don't go out."
Nationally, employment in local government jobs, which includes police departments, has dropped 4% since 2009 (this sector excludes education jobs). Many states didn't start cutting police budgets until the scope of their budget problems became evident, in 2009.
Employment in investigation and security services, on the other hand, started ticking up in early 2009, and has grown 5.1% since then, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
The decline in police funding means cities such as Camden have to pick their battles. The city broke its own record last year when it had 67 murders.
"With our budget cuts, obviously, we have to treat things like triage," said Robert Corrales, a spokesman for the city. "We handle the more pressing situations before routine traffic stops or speeding tickets."
At times, police and private detectives can be antagonists, such as when private detectives are hired by defendants to go over police work and figure out where law enforcement might have missed evidence, or didn't follow through on a case.
Recently, a mother called Blaettler, begging him to get her son out of jail, where she said he was being held for a murder he didn't commit. Blaettler found evidence about the man's alibi that the police hadn't followed up on, and helped the man get out of jail, leaving police without a suspect.
But other times, police and private detectives work together.
Police netted the driveway lurker with Glemser's help, for instance. Once he got off the phone with the woman, Glemser settled in outside the house for an old-fashioned stakeout.
The next time the car lurked in the driveway, the woman's husband was home. He called the police, who had started paying attention because Glemser had alerted them to his work. They tracked down the bad guy by his license plate number.
Glemser took on her case for free, something some detectives are doing in this age of austerity.
In another case, Glemser headed into Camden one of the most dangerous cities in the country to find a prostitute who had warrants out for her arrest. Police weren't arresting her, though, and her mother hired Glemser to bring her home. The private eye posed as a john, asking others for the woman named Christine, until he found her and brought her home. Her mother has checked her into rehab.
"I didn't feel like the police were going to help me any way at all," said Christine's mother, Joanne, an administrator who lives in Milford, Pa., and wanted the family's last name kept private while her daughter goes to rehab. "In Camden, they have so few police now, and there's so much violence and drug problems, they just push it all under the rug."
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© 2013, Los Angeles Times. Distributed by MCT Information Services