Secret police

City leaders were woefully ignorant about any controversy surrounding hiring rent-a-cops, or they just didn’t want to hear it

The CN&R first wrote about Armed Guard Private Protection four years ago (see “Private security,” Newslines, Oct. 31, 2013). A lot was happening at that time. Signs of the effects of the Great Recession were everywhere—particularly obvious was an increase in the local homeless population.

Simultaneously, the Chico Police Officers’ Association was negotiating with the city for a new contract, and the leaders of that organization were using fear-mongering tactics about crime to get what they wanted: pay increases at a time when the city teetered on financial insolvency.

Many members of the public seemed to buy into the rhetoric and stopped coming downtown. That’s when the R-Town Downtown Coalition, a group of property owners and business people, hired armed guards to patrol the city center on the lead-up to the holiday shopping season.

The move was controversial. As retired Chico nurse Molly Amick put it in a guest commentary in this newspaper the week after that initial story (see “Looking for answers on armed guards,” Nov. 7, 2013), “Since when does the privilege of renting downtown business space extend to the right to hire armed private guards—who are not regulated, evaluated or operated by community-hired and -elected officials—to enforce public laws?”

Armed Guard Private Protection (AGPP) was the subject of a few stories in the years that followed, but we homed in on the company once again this year after the death of Tyler Rushing, a Ventura man who was shot by an AGPP employee and then by a Chico police officer at a downtown business office he’d broken into.

We knew AGPP worked for private businesses as well as the Downtown Chico Business Association, and we also knew the company had a contract with the city to carry out menial tasks such as locking and unlocking public restrooms and the gates to public parks.

Turns out, though, that AGPP’s contract with the city is more expansive and expensive than we initially thought.

As Ken Smith reports in this week’s cover story (page 18), an effort that included public records requests for the contract and other documentation, the city pays AGPP in excess of $66,000 annually and its duties include armed guards performing “sweeps” of public property, including city parks, where its employees engage those who violate city laws, including the one prohibiting camping.

First, let’s talk about the $66,000. That’s a lot of money. It’s about $24,000 more than the median annual household income ($42,334). The number may seem insignificant in relation to the city of Chico’s $48 million operating budget, but it’s not in the context of the financial maneuverings we’ve seen take place in the years since the global economic crisis that wreaked havoc on the municipality’s coffers.

Second, consider this: It’s taxpayer money. What’s distressing is that the public never had a chance to weigh in on the subject of the city hiring armed guards. Indeed, even City Councilman Randall Stone, one of the panel’s more competent financial watchdogs, was unaware of the scope of the contract.

In short, nobody on staff, including any of the top administrators at City Hall or the police department, had the foresight to consider the public might voice opposition to the city spending tens of thousands of dollars—the majority of it from the general fund—on gun-toting rent-a-cops performing quasi-law-enforcement duties.

Either that, or they just didn’t want to hear it.