Out of America: Scandal that drove a town to hire private police

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The Independent Online
SUSSEX, NEW JERSEY - In the future, Andy Warhol once famously remarked, every American will be world famous for 15 minutes.

Even by such generous standards, however, Peter Horvath seems a pretty unlikely celebrity when you meet him in the tranquil parlour of Pinknel's Funeral Home. Yet, for the past few weeks, reporters from the largest US newspapers and camera crews from the big television networks have been flocking to see him.

Apart from his duties as Pinknel's director, Mr Horvath is Mayor of Sussex. And not long ago, Sussex became the first municipality in the country to sack its police department and replace it with four private security guards.

Sussex is well named. On a summer's afternoon the gentle hills of northern New Jersey, at the tip of a triangle where the borders of New Jersey, New York State and Pennsylvania meet, have the intimate feel of the English countryside at its best. True, the township itself, of 2,300 souls, founded in 1732, has seen better days. The local handbag factory is no more, and the one cinema closed 14 years ago. But the bank is still there, and down on the shopping mall you can get your hair washed and cut for a most un-Clintonlike dollars 7 ( pounds 5). The day I was there, the main cafe was gearing up to host the 1993 pre- high school dance for eighth- graders.

Sussex, in short, remains what it always has been, a small market town - not the sort of place where the history of privatisation in the United States is written. And, to be honest, Mr Horvath is a reluctant revolutionary.

It all started last year when Sussex disbanded its old police department after two of the four-man force were indicted in a drug scandal. Shortly afterwards, the town was ordered by the New Jersey government to modernise its water and sewerage system, at a cost of dollars 9m. Given that the annual muncipal budget was only dollars 820,000, savings plainly were essential.

'What with pensions and everything else, the old police used to cost dollars 285,000 a year,' the Mayor explained. 'So we brought in the private firm on an initial contract for six months, at a cost of dollars 48,000.'

The services are slightly less comprehensive than in the old days. The four private guards work two weekdays, and two weekday nights, as well as Friday and Saturday nights when things are inclined to get a bit rowdy round the town's three bars.

Thus far, though, says Mr Horvath, 'the results have been fantastic. Obviously, they're not real police and we don't pretend they are. Their only power is that of citizen's arrest. If a crime is committed, they have to call the state troopers. Frankly though, they look better than the real thing, all spit and polish. They carry 9mm handguns, handcuffs, two-way radios and batons, they even work out of the old police office.'

Most important, since the private guards took over, the number of calls for assistance has plummeted. 'People feel safer. For the first time residents in the town centre are getting a good night's sleep at weekends,' the Mayor says

Alas, not everyone sees it that way. Mr Horvath's policy may make perfect economic sense, and local reaction has been enthusiastic. But from a legal viewpoint, he has stirred a hornet's nest. Apart from the weekend shenanigans, Sussex is a pretty peaceful place. One early emergency was rounding up a loose cow; the other day the private guards handcuffed a man who was beating up his girlfriend in the street. Then there was the detention of a couple of juveniles carrying knives. In the latter case though, the private guards technically had no authority to act. In a truly serious incident, say New Jersey criminal prosecutors, one slip-up and both town and state could face massive lawsuits.

They warn, too, that Sussex could set a trend. After all, private security men hired by businesses, local residents' associations and individuals across the US already outnumber the 500,000 public law enforcement officers by three to one. Their total cost is dollars 52bn, twice the sum raised by state and local taxes for public police. If one small New Jersey borough goes private, then why not every cash-strapped US town and city? Might not policing join education and health care, with one system for the rich and another for the poor?

Such thoughts, however, are not on Mr Horvath's mind as he savours his allotted 15 minutes of fame, and fires off indignant letters to anyone who criticises him.

If the US is serious about preventing crime, Republicans, Democrats and everyone else agrees, the simplest step is to increase visible police presence. And the mayor is doing precisely that. One glimpse of security guard Frank Raeder on Main Street, as he eases his 6ft 8in,

23-stone frame out of a smart white car marked 'Community Patrol', and any criminal thought you might harbour vanishes instantly.