Private detectives filling gaps left by police budget cuts

CAMDEN, N.J. — In an office in a sleepy town in southern New Jersey, Harry Glemser’s phone rang. With no buxom secretary to take a message, he answered it himself.

It was a dame, looking to hire a private eye.

But this was no scene from a noir novel. The woman was calling because someone in a car kept lurking in her driveway, the engine running, when her husband wasn’t home. She’d called the police, but they couldn’t help. She hoped Glemser could.

Detectives like Glemser across cash-strapped states have been getting more calls like these as cities and towns cut their police forces to contend with deep budget cuts. New Jersey alone lost 4,200 officers from 2008 to 2011, according to the Policemen’s Benevolent Assn., which tracks the state’s most recent data. As police focus more on responding to crime rather than preventing it, private detectives and security firms are often taking on the roles that police once did, investigating robberies, checking out alibis, looking into threats.

“The public is frustrated by the police,” said Glemser, a retired cop of 63 whose gold chains, white hair and bulky body might make a stranger worry he’s on the wrong side of the law. “The citizenry is quick to say that the police don’t do anything for them. They should be saying the police can’t do anything for them because of this budgetary issue, this manpower problem, this directive we have that came down from the chief.”

Private detectives are just one piece of the private sector security and policing services that people are increasingly turning to as they worry about crime. The U.S. private security industry is expected to grow 6.3% a year to $19.9 billion by 2016, according to a study by security research group Freedonia Group Inc. Even some in the public sector are trying to tap into the industry to save money; one Tennessee power department laid off security officers last year and replaced them with security technology and private contractors.

In California, where many cash-strapped cities cut police budgets during the recession, residents are turning to detectives, security firms and even the Internet.

After police cuts in Oakland, resident Dabney Lawless encouraged 400 neighbors to sign up on a website so they could send alerts to one another when they noticed suspicious people around; she also pays extra to an alarm company to drive through the neighborhood. Ron Cancio, the manager of a Stockton security firm, said that since the city’s budget battles, residents often have called his firm for minor complaints, because they know he’ll respond more quickly than the police.

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