When Hospitals Become 'Hoods: Evidence That Privatizing Security Guards is a Baaaad Idea

Categories: Government

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By Benjamin Wachs

It’s hard to believe, but somehow I’ve ended up agreeing with both Sean Elsbernd AND Chris Daly on an issue.

Not that they agree with each other.

As the Examiner reported, the two Supervisors got into a brouhaha (I’ve always wanted to say that) over the Mayor’s proposal to replace hospital security guards at San Francisco General and local clinics with privately contracted security staff.

Daly, who’s never met a union he wouldn't kill for, proposed spending $5 million of the city’s reserve funds to cover the cost of keeping the civil service security staff. Elsbernd said that’s just fiscal crazyness.

And, for the record, Elsbernd’s right. Using reserve funds to pay for ongoing expenses is one of the worst ways to manage a budget: it’s like maxing out your credit card with your first year of car payments. You end up more in debt than you started – and you’ve still got to pay for the car.

But as it happens, Daly is also right: the evidence suggests that replacing city security guards at the hospital with rent-a-cops is probably a very bad idea.

At least if you like hospitals and are against assaults ... which I am.

While there are no conclusive studies about the impact of privatized hospital security staff, several major hospitals that tried it got into trouble right from the get go: New York City’s public hospitals had to abandon their privatization plans before they even started, after it was revealed that the company selected to provide security had a history of sexual harassment complaints against its staff. Other privatization efforts have run into similar trouble.

But perhaps the most serious problem with the privatization plan is that security is one of those things you just don’t want to contract out to the lowest bidder.

A hospital’s security needs are not really comparable to a mall’s – a far more apt comparison is to a prison's. Hospitals are one of the few areas of society to which convicted prisoners have access: likewise people injured in clashes with police (along with their family, friends, and … ahem … associates) are brought to the same hospitals as everyone else in town, and given the same care and consideration. So while grandma's blood pressure screening might not require a competent security professional, you bet that the aftermath of a gang shooting will.

Do we have shootings in this city?

Hospital security staff have to be ready –and able – to handle this kind of environment … and the research on privatization of prison guards is not encouraging.

A George Washington University study found that private prisons have 50 percent more inmate-on-staff assaults and two-thirds more inmate-on-inmate assaults than public prisons of similar security levels. Likwise a meta-analysis out of the University of Cincinnati found no evidence that private prisons are more cost effective. And a 2001 monograph from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency reported that "The (private enterprise) promises of (savings) in operational costs have simply not materialized, " while rates of assault are significantly higher in privately run prisons.

So if you want the peace of mind that comes with not getting shot at during an MRI, you probably don’t want your hospital guarded by rent-a-cops.

Granted, granted, that the city is in a budget death-spiral – but bad ideasare still just bad, and we shouldn’t take them. That counts for Daly’s fiscal recklessness, too: $5 million will just have to be found (or taxed) somewhere else.


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