A little-known law in Virginia allows private citizens to petition the courts for the authority to carry a gun, display a badge and make arrests. Named “special conservators of the peace” (SCOP), more private police are popping up every day and in the process are getting muddled up with the real thing.
According to The Washington Post, the number of SCOPs has doubled in Virginia over the past ten years, amounting to around 750 private police. The development mirrors national growth as the need for private security has increased and police services have been cut due to shrinking budgets.
As the trend grows, so does the concern that these individuals are not receiving sufficient training. They only receive a small amount compared to their law enforcement counterparts and authorities are questioning arrests made by private police officers.
On Friday, Virginia approved a bill that has increased the amount of training needed for SCOPs, from 40 hours to 130 hours. In Washington, DC, special police must complete a required 40 hours. Maryland allows employers to determine the amount of training a private officer needs. Other states throughout the country have comparable systems.
“There are a number of groups we regulate far more stringently than SCOPs carrying a gun,” said Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran, prior to the passage of the bill.
Michael Youlen, an example of a SCOP, recently used his authority to stop a driver in Manassas, Virginia. Youlen gave the man a ticket for driving on a suspended license and a firm warning to stay off the road. The big difference in receiving a citation from Youlen is he is his own force, which he has named the “Manassas Junction Police Department.”
The Roanoke Times reported that Youlen is a former police officer. He envisions himself as a complement to the Manassas police force, not a replacement of it. “I’m part-time police officer and a part-time advocate,” he said. “And I would hope a part-time role model and steady security presence for these communities.”
Manassas City Police Chief Douglas Keen is worried about the presence of Youlen, saying many citizens have confused him as a Manassas officer. “Any misunderstanding or confusion in this could greatly impact relationships and trust within our community,” he said.
Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert said SCOPs’ lack of training and their backgrounds have sometimes weakened cases for prosecutions. However, his office did note they had not had any issues with Youlen.
“The trouble of prosecuting cases from those folks is that we have to vouch for the credibility of the complainant,” Ebert said. “A lot of them are not trained and don’t have pasts that are conducive to law enforcement.”