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Amid high crime and demoralized police, anxious urbanites turn to private security to keep them safe

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

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Lights reflect on the water of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Everything is quiet at 4 a.m. on this September morning. Just down the road, the historic Federal Hill neighborhood has long since gone to bed. But not everyone is sleeping. In the darkness, shadows move. Would-be thieves are quietly appraising cars, peeking in windows, trying door handles, hoping to find one unlocked. But they’re not the only ones awake. A resident spots them and reaches for her phone. She doesn’t call 911, though, because she fears the police will take too long to respond. Instead, she calls Federal Hill’s private security firm, Matcom.

Brian Askew, Matcom’s founder, is on patrol and happens to be just two blocks away when the call comes in. He takes off in a company Crown Vic, a decommissioned police car.

Gangs of youths burglarizing cars are common in Baltimore. And that’s hardly the worst type of crime. Last year, the city with a population of less than 600,000 people logged 334 homicides. The high crime rates paired with an understaffed and demoralized police department have left Baltimore’s residents searching for other ways to stay safe. Some neighborhoods, like Federal Hill, are reaching into their pockets to pay private security firms to patrol their streets. It’s a heavy financial burden, and it’s not clear whether the patrols actually reduce crime. But the trend is catching on. A growing number of Americans, particularly in urban areas, are turning to private security to keep their homes and businesses safe.

The tires on Askew’s Crown Victoria shriek as he brakes to a halt near the would-be burglars. Body camera rolling, he jumps out and yells: “Hey! Get over here!” One suspect jumps into a getaway car and speeds away so fast he sideswipes a parked car. That’s when Askew realizes he’s dealing with a lot more than two suspects. Others scatter left and right on foot. It’s hard to tell in the dark, but Askew counts five or six of them. He ­manages to grab one.

“The guy is all like, ‘I ain’t do nothin’, man,’” said Askew. “I was like, ‘Yeah, you’re part of the main event.’”

Askew detains the suspect until police arrive and take over. That night, he likely prevented a crime. But the truth is, it’s a drop in the bucket.

Famously crime-ridden, Baltimore has battled bad guys for decades. And the city did make progress early in the new millennium. In 2011, the homicide rate hit a record low of 197. But murder skyrocketed after April 2015, when Freddie Gray, a black man, died of a spinal injury sustained in police custody. Gray’s death sparked weeks of violent protests in Baltimore. The progressive state’s attorney at the time, Marilyn Mosby, filed charges against all six officers involved in the arrest. Trials against three resulted in acquittals and prosecutors dropped charges against the rest.

Following the whole mess—Gray’s death, the riots, the charges—many officers retired or changed jobs. As of mid-October 2023, the police department had 558 vacancies—one-fifth of its budgeted positions. Now, people can’t move out of Baltimore fast enough. The city’s population has fallen to its lowest point in over a century.

Illustration by Krieg Barrie

BALTIMORE RESIDENT Ian Neuman is no stranger to dangerous places. He spent part of his youth living in Israel. “I was there in 1973,” he recalled. “We had armed guards everywhere. You could literally, from where I was, tell when they were going to raid Syria because I counted the bombs on the bomb racks of the planes as they were heading in that direction. That’s how low they were.”

Neuman now lives in Federal Hill—that neighborhood where Brian Askew foiled the car burglars—and has since 1978. He loves it there. His wife feels unsafe. By 2020, Baltimore’s homicide rate had exceeded 300 for five years straight. Having lived under the flightpath of bombers, Neuman could tolerate the crime, but his wife was near the end of her rope. In early September, a man was shot dead during a dice game in Federal Hill Park, just a few yards from their house. A week and a half later, someone was carjacked on their street at 5 p.m.

That afternoon, Neuman struck up a conversation with his neighbor, Darren Anderson, under a magnolia tree outside their historic red-brick townhouses. They frowned as they discussed the recent crimes. Then they decided to do something about it.

Other neighborhoods across Baltimore had hired private security firms to patrol their streets. Why shouldn’t Federal Hill do the same? From there, Neuman, Anderson, and several others got to work. They consulted local government officials and police officers, who told Neuman they appreciated more eyes on the street. I called the Baltimore Police Department to verify their support, but they declined to comment.

Neuman and the others eventually set up a corporation, Federal Hill Neighborhood Patrol Inc. Next, they needed money. They hoped to raise $18,000 to fund the patrol for a three-month trial. But their neighbors nearly tripled that: About 90 households in Federal Hill contributed $50,000. In May 2021, the first patrol hit the streets.

More than 1 million people work as security guards in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, and that number has doubled in the past 20 years. Since 2020, neighborhoods like Federal Hill have started hiring private security services. In Minnesota, for example, the number of licenses approved for new private security firms rose from 14 in 2019 to 27 in 2021, according to the state’s Board of Private Detective and Protective Agent Services. In Oregon, 1,635 private security guards had a license to carry a gun in September 2019. Today, that number has grown to 2,268.

The dynamics vary per city, but the underlying drivers are largely the same as in Baltimore: People are worried about police understaffing and rising crime. National crime rates, particularly the homicide rate, rose dramatically in 2020, even as law enforcement agencies shrank—and continue to do so. Police officer resignations spiked 47 percent in 2022 compared with 2019, according to a ­survey of 182 police agencies by the Police Executive Research Forum. Retirements rose 19 percent.

Over 1 million people work as security guards in America, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, a number that has doubled in the past 20 years.

THE FEDERAL HILL NEIGHBORHOOD PATROL recently wrapped up its third year. Matcom’s guards patrol five days a week from about 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. Days and times vary to make it harder for would-be criminals to detect a pattern. Since crime drops in the winter, the patrol only hires Matcom from May to November to save money. The annual cost is $42,000 to $45,000. Neuman asks residents to contribute a minimum of $300 per year, though he and a few others donate more. Those who contribute get Matcom’s phone number and a phone app with a panic button so they can get help quickly when they need it.

But not everyone in Federal Hill thinks the patrol is a good idea. Like Neuman, Brad O’Brien is deeply invested in the neighborhood. He’s lived there since 2013 with his wife and four children. O’Brien pastors Jesus Our Redeemer, a Southern Baptist church, and volunteers as the public safety chair for the neighborhood association. He’s also president of the community relations council for the local police district. These ­positions give him access to crime data, and he concludes the patrol is “not correlated to any drop in crime or incidents.”

O’Brien also worries about inequity. The patrol only covers one part of Federal Hill—the wealthier part. And he believes the patrol’s cost, met by voluntary contributions, makes it unsustainable. “You’re asking people who are already paying some of the highest tax rates in the state of Maryland to go back into their coffers and pull out money to pay for something that should actually be a basic city service,” he said.

O’Brien is working to get better public lighting and have license plate-reading cameras installed. He thinks those are superior options for fighting crime. But he stressed his gratitude that Neuman and others are trying to help rather than moving out of the city.

Neuman believes Matcom’s guards do make the neighborhood safer. He says they regularly intervene in situations where they likely prevented a crime. The best feedback he gets comes from residents who keep contributing each year. “They tell me, ‘You’re doing this and my life just got better,’” he said. Neuman wishes the patrol could cover the whole neighborhood, but that would cost a lot more money.

When it comes to long-term sustainability, Neuman notes several of the private security patrols in Baltimore have been around for decades. He’s working to register the Federal Hill patrol as a nonprofit to make residents’ contributions tax deductible, and hopefully further fortify its finances.

Neuman sees no end to the need for the patrol. The city’s homicide rate dropped this year, but it’s still much higher than before 2015. In 2022, 279 Baltimore police officers left and only 103 were hired, despite major recruitment efforts. City elections in 2024 may bring change, but it’s too early to make any predictions.

Neuman has no plans to retire from running the patrol. “I want it to be that people feel this is a safe neighborhood, and I want all of Baltimore to think it’s a safe neighborhood,” he said. “That’s why I do it.”

Emma Freire

Emma Freire is a senior writer for WORLD Magazine. She is a former Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies. She also previously worked at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and a Dutch multinational bank. She resides near Baltimore, Md., with her husband and three children.



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