Privatization of Security Services

April 25, 2017

On April 25, 2017, Dr. Johannes Rieckmann, DAAD/AGI Research Fellow in March and April 2017, presented his findings on his project “Privatization of Security Services: Comparing Approaches to Policing and Prisons across the Atlantic” in a seminar at AGI.

Various factors led to the increase in privatization in these services, which has occurred to different degrees in both Germany and the U.S. Financial considerations have been a leading cause of privatization in both Germany and the U.S. The government, whenever strapped for cash, looks for ways to spend tax money in a more efficient way and needs to economize the funds it has.  Comparing the situations in the U.S. with that in Germany, Dr. Rieckmann noted there are similarities, but also stark differences between these examples. Both countries have different approaches not only regarding the balancing of liberty with security, but also when looking for solutions in privatization in the specific two areas on which Dr. Rieckmann focused: private police forces and privately operated for-profit prisons. He explained that examples of these can readily be found in the U.S., but there are fewer examples of them in Germany.

Dr. Rieckmann first examined the role of police privatization. Law enforcement officers respond to varied threats in both countries, and their roles are adjusted accordingly. For example, active shooter incidents are a pressing threat in the U.S. (160 recorded incidents between 2000-2013) but do not often occur in Germany (there were about ten comparable incidents in German schools since 1871, six of them after 2000), and certainly not on such a scale. Due to response times of local police and the emergent nature of active shooter events, there has been a greater demand in the U.S. for sub-local armed private police forces, for example, on university campuses. These private police forces have certain powers (such as arresting, investigation, pursuit, etc.), and often firearms, that private security guards would not have in Germany. Private police forces are staffed differently in the U.S. and Germany as well: in the U.S., private security companies often hire retired police officers or former military.  In Germany, people are often trained for the job and do not come from these previous positions. This difference is not only rooted in varying job descriptions, but also in the available personnel pool. In the U.S., police officers reach their full right to a pension after 20 to 30 years of active duty and can then move into the private sector, while German police officers typically remain in public service until they reach retirement age.

Dr. Rieckmann also examined the role of prison privatization. In Germany private contractors are currently operating in five penitentiaries in four different states, and one prison was constructed by a private company and then leased to the state. But in the German penal system, private contractors do not carry out any activities in enforcement or guarding and handling prisoners. Instead, activities such as maintenance and operation of kitchens and workshops fall under their responsibilities. There has been an increase in demand for private companies to assist the government with building or maintaining detention facilities since the refugee crisis, however, the role of private prisons in Germany is much smaller than the role in the U.S.

The U.S. has about 5 percent of the world population and about 25 percent of the prisoner population. With the population of prisoners exploding in the wake of the war on drugs and changes in legislation since the 1980s, prisons were increasingly privatized in the U.S. to keep up with demand for cells and beds—an increased demand that was thought to be temporary. During the presentation, Dr. Rieckmann went over the many issues that have arisen from this, including oversight, quality control, and prisoner and public well-being.

Following the presentation, there was a discussion with the participants on how both countries could learn from the other’s experiences in privatization and the differences between them. Though much of the presentation focused on the U.S. system of privatization, a reoccurring part of the subsequent discussion was whether—with the large influx of people from the ongoing refugee crisis in Europe—Germany would need to or could transfer more security services from overstrained and overstretched police forces to private service providers in less disputed areas (as it already can be seen in air passenger screening, or accompanying of heavy-duty transports). On the other hand, the foreshadowing increased collaboration of authorities with private contractors in custody pending deportation was regarded skeptically by both German and American discussants.


Dr. Johannes Rieckmann is a DAAD/AGI Research Fellow in March and April 2017. He is a Senior Research Fellow at BIGS, the Brandenburg Institute for Society and Security in Potsdam, Germany. His main field of research there is the multidisciplinary conceptualization of a guideline on boundaries and potentials of privatization of security services.

Previously, he was postdoc research associate at DIW, the German Institute for Economic Research located in Berlin. There he worked in a team developing the WISIND crime indicator and collected household and geospatial data from semi-nomadic herders in Kyrgyzstan for a development economics survey. He earned his doctorate at the Chair of Development Economics in Göttingen, Germany, evaluating a water and sanitation program in Yemen. Before that, he worked for a large management consultancy in Belgium. In addition to his native German, Dr. Rieckmann speaks English and French.


AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room

1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Suite 700 Washington, DC 20036 United States

AICGS R. G. Livingston Conference Room
1755 Massachusetts Avenue NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20036
United States