A recent article in the Washington Post reports the growth of private law enforcement in the US. It gives examples from the States of North Carolina, Virginia, Maryland, and the District (see The Private Arm of the Law).
At present, there are about 700,000 sworn US law enforcement officers (paid by taxpayers). In contrast, there are 1 million contract security officers and another 1 million security guards who work for the private sector. Private security guards have outnumbered police officers since the 1980s. As the article puts it: "You can see the public police becoming like the public health system. It's basically, the government provides a certain base level. If you want more than that, you pay for it yourself."
Unlike what many economists have said for decades, the enforcement of the law is (most of the time) not a public good. The services that private police agencies provide are private, i.e., delivered to a set of clients in a given area. Moreover, as the article shows, private law enforcement companies react to market conditions in a much faster and efficient way than the public police. Because they use the price system, they can be entrepreneurial:
“Capitol Special Police's owner, Roy G. Taylor, was chief of three small nearby police departments and held state law enforcement jobs before starting the company in 2002. As Hispanic gangs were increasing, he said, "I saw a niche." The company has [now] eight officers, some of whom are part time while working for area police departments.”
Private law enforcement also reveals the exact cost of security for those who want to be safe. Roy G. Taylor’s firm charges $35 per hour and his officers “are mindful that customers are billed for the time they spend testifying in court.” They make arrest only when necessary.
All this is reminiscent of Murray Rothbard’s work on private law enforcement (see Power and Market chapter 1 for instance), that of Bruce Benson (The Enterprise of Law), Gustave de Molinari (De la Production de la Securité), and the project that Peter Boettke is leading on anarchy as a research program.
While the provision of security is still under the ultimate monopoly of the state, it is interesting to see a growing part of it within the market purview. And the police itself thinks it’s a good idea: “"There is a limit to the amount of law enforcement you can expect taxpayers to support," said Ron Hodge, Durham's deputy police chief, who said some of his requests for additional officers have been turned down in recent years.”
The US is a different place from the rest of the Western World. While I don’t have the figures for Europe, I suspect that private law enforcement is much less an option over there. Moreover, the attitude of people towards law enforcement being different, they are more likely to be uncomfortable with the idea that profit would be the ultimate driver of security.