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Private Firms : On Patrol: Security Is Big Business

May 21, 1985|RONALD L. SOBLE | Times Staff Writer

In a decade of patrolling the Hollywood Hills, John Spates and Higginbottom, his Staffordshire bull terrier, have corralled a handful of burglars and a runaway horse.

In that time, the former Marine and owner of Hollywoodland Patrol has logged 165,000 miles while maneuvering his 1975 Volvo along the steep roads winding up to the city's landmark Hollywood sign.

Across town, late-model fleets of cars operated by Bel-Air Patrol and Westec Security roll through Bel-Air, Hancock Park, Century City--neighborhoods filled with the kind of old and new money that attracts burglars.

Spates' Hollywoodland Patrol, which he runs with his two daughters, is a "mom-and-pop" operation. Bel-Air, the city's oldest private patrol with roots going back about 60 years, and Westec, whose warning signs are becoming as common as weeds on Southland lawns, are big firms that dominate Los Angeles' residential security market.

Firms Proliferate

Such firms have proliferated here and nationally in the last five years as residents appear to be relying more and more on the use of private cops to protect their homes and neighborhoods against crime.

"Despite the expanded role of the police in crime prevention in recent years, it appears that the private sector will bear an increased prevention role while law enforcement concentrates more heavily on violent crimes and crime response," said a recent report for the U.S. Department of Justice.

"Private security is taking on a bigger role, doing a lot of things cops used to do," said Robert McCrie, owner of New York-based Security Letter, an industry publication.

And, he added in a telephone interview, "it's not just the affluent neighborhoods" that are laying out big bucks for private protection. "All neighborhoods are providing for their own private security."

$500-Million Market

The result, McCrie said, is that in the United States about 6,500 security firms are competing this year in a $500-million private patrol market. Homeowners are expected to spend additional $125 million on residential alarm systems this year.

In California alone since 1980, there has been a 58% increase in the number of private patrol companies, to 1,787 firms, including 794 companies in Los Angeles and Orange counties, according to the California Department of Consumer Affairs.

In the city of Los Angeles, there are 39 private security firms, a 56% jump from a decade ago, according to City Hall registration records.

Most of these firms are small, and several of them concentrate on what can be the highly profitable industrial security end of the business.

In Los Angeles and Orange counties, Bel-Air and Westec say they each employ about 100 private patrolmen to keep an eye on Southland homes.

Westec says its patrol and burglar alarm services cover about 20,000 homes in 38 neighborhoods; Bel-Air patrols about 6,000 homes in 12 neighborhoods in a more concentrated West Los Angeles area.

Varied Services

For the services, residents can pay a one-time cost of anywhere from $1,000 for a relatively simple alarm system to up to 3% of the cost of the home, according to McCrie.

Additionally, the package cost of both patrolling a residence and monitoring an alarm can run more than $50 a month. For the bargain-hunter, many mom-and-pop firms like Spates' Hollywoodland, which does not sell alarm systems, offer patrol-only services for about $15 a month.

Protecting property against potential thieves is not the only service offered in this increasingly competitive field. Most firms say they will put mail in a safe place and pick up newspapers while a client is on vacation, check to make sure that the baby sitter is OK and even escort clients to their doors when they return from the theater.

One firm went so far as to claim that it checked the thermostat in a customer's wine cellar while he was out of town. Another said its guards have driven home clients who have had too much to drink. Another private patrolman recalled helping pluck a distressed owl from a tree.

"There's a fine line between being an officer and a maid," grumbled one guard critical of the lengths to which his firm had gone to attract customers.

Police Aware

The effect of the growth of private patrols has not been lost on police officials here. Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl F. Gates recently held his first staff meeting that concentrated on studying the degree of cooperation between his forces and private police.

For their part, private patrol officials say their personnel are trained to quickly alert local police when they spot a suspicious situation or confront a suspect.

Among some of Gates' colleagues on the force there is a feeling that no matter how much private patrols brag about their efficiency, the public's money would be better spent on financing more officers for the Police Department.

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