‘I want to be safe.’ Why a growing number of neighborhoods are hiring private security

If you witness a crime, here’s what to do

Witnessing a crime and reporting it can be just as frightening as being the victim of a crime. Here’s what you should do if you witness illegal activity.
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Witnessing a crime and reporting it can be just as frightening as being the victim of a crime. Here’s what you should do if you witness illegal activity.

Emily Hannon’s neighborhood in Land Park is no criminal hotspot, but she said the “little things” have added up over her nine years there.

First, the radio was stolen out of Hannon’s locked car. Then decorations disappeared from her front porch. And in recent years, she said, crime targeting her neighbors has seemed to rise, with posts about Land Park car break-ins popping up on the neighborhood social site Nextdoor every week.

The piling up of incidents finally pushed Hannon to action, and last year, she and her neighbors – more than 70 homes in total now – joined a small but growing number of Sacramento neighborhoods fed up with petty crime that pool money to hire private security for their streets. Long common among businesses and gated communities, the extra security measures are newer territory for entire blocks of residents who want to combat crimes like car break-ins and bike thefts but realize city resources are stretched.

“They’re dealing with much bigger fish to fry, and they should be,” Hannon said of city police. “We shouldn’t allocate our police resources to petty stuff. But I want to be safe in my neighborhood.”

Matt Carroll, founder of Paladin Private Security – the firm Hannon’s group pays, which appears to be the only local company that patrols residential areas besides complexes – said his company serves four neighborhoods in Sacramento comprising about 1,500 homes. The trend may not be “rampant,” he said, but it’s noticeable.

“Ten years ago, the notion of neighborhood members passing a hat to generate a grassroots security fund was virtually unheard of,” Carroll said.

Paladin’s first neighborhood, six blocks in East Sacramento’s “Fab 40s” area, began contracting with the security service around 2010. Others followed in 2012 and 2014, Carroll said. Hannon’s two-by-four-block area in Land Park got its first patrols in April of 2016.

In Hannon’s neighborhood, armed Paladin guards in marked cars patrol four times a day for about 15 minutes between 11th and 13th Avenue and Land Park Drive and Freeport. One of the arrangement’s main selling points, though, is 24/7 calling access to Paladin for an immediate dispatch. Minor incidents that police note could take hours to respond to while they handle more serious crimes take only a few minutes for a private guard to get to, Carroll and Hannon said. Residents don’t have to worry about burdening police or racking up fines with false alarms.

“If you see something that looks suspicious, you have someone to call who will answer right away,” Hannon said.

Guards can make so-called citizen’s arrests, detaining criminals until police arrive. But Carroll said only about 0.2 percent of the incidents Paladin responds to are violent crimes or thefts with known suspects that require police involvement.

“Mostly what we’re dealing with is quality of life stuff,” he said, “Someone parked in my parking space. Panhandler in front of my business. … Most of these are things that you just need a good hall monitor to squash.”

Hannon said she first raised the idea of private security in 2015 with the Land Park Community Association (LPCA), hoping to get the entire Land Park area on board. But the LPCA didn’t move forward with the plan, which Hannon admitted was a daunting task to organize.

Stephanie Duncan, an LPCA board member, said residents’ opinions on a private security contract were mixed: When Duncan posted about it on Nextdoor a couple years ago, some people didn’t like the idea of spending money on top of the taxes they already pay to fund police. The LPCA preferred put some of its money toward aiding police – for example, by buying “decoy bikes” to help catch thieves, LPCA president Steve Winlock said.

Hannon created her own group, the Neighborhood Security Association of Land Park, modeling it after an association Paladin’s Fab 40s customers launched specifically to hire the security company.

According to Hannon, more than half of the households in her eight-block area participate, chipping in $250 a year each for the security service, or about $20 a month – “less than the cost of cable TV,” as Hannon put it.

Some private security users blamed recent legal reforms for the crime frustrating their neighborhoods. California’s Proposition 47, for example, which passed toward the end of 2014, changed six felonies to misdemeanors carrying maximum punishments of a year in county jail rather than several years in prison. Katy Grimes, a Land Park resident who helps Hannon run the new security association, blasted the measure for weakening deterrents to downgraded crimes such as thefts under $950.

“This petty stuff seems to be out of control,” she said.

Property crimes reported to Sacramento police went up about 9 percent from 2014 to 2015, mirroring a statewide jump. But property crime in the city decreased to close to 2014 levels the following year, according to last year’s annual police report. Police said they could not speak to what effects Prop. 47 may have had on crime.

The Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department, however, criticized the new law. Sgt. Shaun Hampton of the sheriff’s department said the Prop. 47’s shift to issuing citations rather than making arrests for crimes like under-$950 thefts has made deputies’ jobs “a lot more difficult.”

“It’s kind of a revolving door,” Hampton said. “We deal with the same folks day in and day out stealing other things. We give them a ticket and they’re on their way. … It’s virtually the same as a traffic citation.”

Carroll said Paladin’s call volume has increased 20 to 30 percent each year in most areas it serves for the past five years, but he takes it largely as a good sign of higher reporting to the company. Still, he cited AB 109 – another controversial bill that in 2011 moved responsibility for supervising many low-level offenders from the state prisons to county jails – as putting “a lot of offenders back on the street.”

Meanwhile, police are recovering from recession-era budget cuts that led Sacramento to cut its police force below state averages before the number of officers began to climb back up in 2014. According to FBI data, the number of sworn officers employed by the police department dropped by 100 from 2007 to 2013 – a decrease of about 14 percent. When 40 recruits graduate in December, the department will have 660 sworn officers, still below the more than 700 it employed before the recession, said department spokesman Sgt. Bryce Heinlein.

According to police department’s 2016 report, response times to calls have climbed in the last five years, although the average response time for the lowest-priority calls remains just over an hour.

Private patrols aren’t the only option for neighborhoods that want beefed-up security. For about two decades, the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department has hired out off-duty deputies. At least seven neighborhoods in the county use the program, Hampton said, and one more looked into it within the past year. City police also hire out off-duty officers, but the department only has one contract with a neighborhood, patrolling one day a week in Phoenix Park, according to Heinlein.

Kathleen Newton, who volunteers with the Wilhaggin Del Dayo Neighborhood Association, said her group has hired sheriff’s deputies for about 10 years now. Paradoxically, she said, residents hired the deputies because their neighborhood was relatively safe – safe enough that law enforcement didn’t allocate much of its resources there.

Newton believes sheriff’s deputies are a good deterrent to criminals but has doubts about private security. “Guys, they see these rent-a-cops, and there’s nothing about that that scares them,” she said.

East Sacramento resident Susan Savage, who helps run the security association in the Fab 40s, admitted that private security was “not an easy sell” to neighbors but said it has been worth the work it took to gather “critical mass.”

“I don’t know if we can expect our police to patrol neighborhoods (much),” she said. “They have crimes to solve. ... (Private security) has served us well.”

Hannah Knowles: 916-321-1141, @KnowlesHannah