• U.S.

The Law: Police for Hire

3 minute read

At 8:30 on an average night, the two police officers start by signing the logbook at San Francisco’s Northern District police station. They scan the district’s crime sheet, undergo inspection, then climb into a black, unmarked patrol car and exchange kisses before setting out to work.

What makes Ralph and Linnea Grebmeier notable is not just that they are man and wife but that the beat they pound is a family business. A member of San Francisco’s freewheeling “Patrol Special” unit, Ralph Grebmeier paid $15,000 for the right to guard one of the city’s 62 private patrol sectors—a two-mile-long swath that runs from the Golden Gate Bridge to Fisherman’s Wharf. In return, he and his wife now collect $750 per week from 89 clients.

Ever since the gold rush, do-it-yourself lawmen have aided the Bay Area’s overtaxed gendarmerie by offering extra protection to merchants and homeowners. The 1899 city charter legitimized the freelancers and brought them under the official umbrella of the police department, but kept them in business. The “Specials” report to local precincts, wear regulation blue, carry guns and nightsticks. They follow all the rules imposed on regular cops and wield most of their powers—unlike other private security agents such as the Pinkertons, who have to call a policeman if they want to make an arrest.

The Specials give customers all kinds of services beyond what the city provides. “I will be on call 24 hours a day,” declares Grebmeier, 37. Clients pay anywhere from $35 a month (for a small family dwelling or retail store) to $450 (for a large apartment house) for three to six regular nightly inspections. For an extra fee, the Grebmeiers will collect mail on weekends, carry deposits to the bank, deliver children home from the airport or trail along with clients as bodyguards at $11.50 an hour.

Keeping the Peace. Before a neophyte Special can sign up a client, he or she spends 98 hours in police training, shooting cardboard crooks on the pistol range, learning self-defense and boning up on details of police legal procedure. Then, after approval by the chief of police and the police commission, the trainee hires on as an apprentice to a full-fledged Special, often the officer who later sells him the beat. The traditional price is ten times the monthly revenue from the beat.

The Specials need every bit of their training to keep the peace. In his 15 years as a freelance cop, John Candido, outgoing president of the Patrol Special Police Officers’ Association, has been roughed up, shot in the head and stabbed three times. Muses Candido: “I kick pimps out of hotels, I break up fights in rathole rooming houses. I look in garbage cans for bombs, I break up rapes, I save old ladies from fires, and I walk drunks home.” The Grebmeiers have not yet encountered anything so violent. On a typical January night, they found no crime more serious than some double-parking by guests at a party at the Indonesian consulate. In fact, during the Grebmeiers’ first four months on the job, their clients have suffered only three minor break-ins. They consider that a success for law-and-order.

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