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The Other Police State -- The Private Intel Industry Grows

Together, the public-state and private-corporate security system is gaining ever-greater control over the lives of ordinary Americans.

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Prevention groups first emerged in England in the early-19th century and got started in the U.S. in 1866 with the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).  By the late-19th century, a host of these groups operated in New York and other cities.  Elbridge Gerry established the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (SPCC) in 1866; Anthony Comstock, with the backing of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), founded the NYSSV (or SSV) in 1873; Howard Crosby founded the Society for the Prevention of Crime (SPC) in 1877 to fight “white slavery,” prostitution; and in 1884, the Rev. Benjamin DeCosta established the White Cross Society promoting purity (i.e., sexual abstinence) until marriage.  In 1892, Rev. Charles Parkhurst established the New York City Vigilance League to fight vice.

During this period, the New York state legislation, along with others throughout the country, empowered prevention societies with law enforcement authority.  New York initially gave the SPCC the power to issue warrants, followed by the power to conduct arrests and engage in vigilante-like raids on private amusement resorts.  These societies, in effect, privatized law enforcement.

A second front in the development of private policing involves the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  Allan Pinkerton founded the company in 1850 and, during the Civil War, he helped foil an assassination attempt against Pres. Lincoln and served as head of the Union Intelligence Service, the forerunner of the Secret Service.  In the decades after the War, Pinkerton became the nation’s leading private police agency.

A recent biography by Beau Riffenburgh, “ Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland” (Viking, 2013), sheds light on how the agency used undercover detectives to crush worker protests, undermine unions and defeat more violent groups.  McParland served as an undercover detective amidst the bitter Pennsylvania coalfield battles of the mid-1870s.  He garnered national media attention as the lead witness in a sensational trial against the Molly Maguires, nine of whom were convicted.  Riffenburgh’s account reads, at times, like a potboiler.

McParland’s success against the Molly Maguires moved him up the Pinkerton ladder.  Over a four-decade career at the company, he eventually came to run it’s Western division in Denver.  In 1894, he played a major role in the break up of the Cripple Creek, CO, miners’ strike, and he supervised the 1896 campaign against the Wild Bunch, a gang of bank and train robbers led by “Butch” Cassidy.  His last great effort, investigating the assassination of a former Idaho governor from 1906-1907, pitted him against “Big Bill” Haywood, Clarence Darrow and the mineworkers union.  It ended in McParland’s utter failure as all those accused—and against whom he testified—were acquitted.

Riffenburgh details many of the questionable—if not illegal—practices McParland and other detectives employed: undercover infiltration, covert surveillance, bribery of witnesses, deception of authorities, planting false evidence, giving false confessions, serving as agent provocateurs, destabilizing unions and using vigilantes to beat back any threat to their corporate client’s interests.  Their principle clients were the railroads and coal companies.  Nothing was unacceptable.  And, given the findings of the Center for Corporate Policy study, little has changed over the last century-plus.

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Private security is big business in the U.S.  According to estimates in the “Spooky Business” report, the private security business is a $50 billion enterprise involving nearly 2,000 companies.  According to Inc., among the nation’s leading private security firms (and their annual revenue in $/millions) are: Universal Service of America ($718.1/m), Accuvant ($420.2/m), Defense Direct ($394.9/m) and LifeLock ($276.4/m).

“Spooky Business” details a dozen or so cases in which leading corporations employed private security firms to engage in dubious, if not illegal, activities against a variety of nonprofit organizations.  These groups’ focuses range from the environment, anti-war, public interest, consumer, food safety pesticide reform and nursing home reform to gun control, social justice, animal rights and arms control.

 
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