Michael Youlen stopped a driver in a Manassas, Virginia, apartment complex on a recent night and wrote the man a ticket for driving on a suspended license. With a badge on his chest and a gun on his hip, Youlen gave the driver a stern warning to stay off the road.
The stop was routine police work, except for one fact: Youlen is not a Manassas officer. The citation came courtesy of the private force he created that, until recently, he called the “Manassas Junction Police Department.”
He is its chief and sole officer.
He is a force of one.
And he is not alone. Like more and more Virginians, Youlen gained his police powers using a little-known provision of state law that allows private citizens to petition the courts for the authority to carry a gun, display a badge and make arrests. The number of “special conservators of the peace” — or SCOPs, as they are known — has doubled in Virginia over the past decade to roughly 750, according to state records.
The growth is mirrored nationally in the ranks of private police, who increasingly patrol corporate campuses, neighborhoods and museums as the demand for private security has increased and police services have been cut in some places.
The trend has raised concerns in Virginia and elsewhere, because these armed officers often receive a small fraction of the training and oversight of their municipal counterparts. Arrests of private police officers and incidents involving SCOPs overstepping their authority have also raised concerns.
The Virginia legislature approved a bill Friday increasing the training and regulation of SCOPs. The private officers would now be required to train for 130 hours, up from 40 hours — less than the state requires for nail technicians, auctioneers and security guards.
In neighboring Washington, a similar designation called “special police” requires 40 hours of training. Maryland officials leave instruction to the discretion of employers but have no requirements. Other states have similar 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, speaking prior to the passage of the bill.
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The conservator of the peace concept predates modern policing.
It has its origins in English common law, and the first Virginia statute was enacted in 1860 to allow proprietors of “watering places” to protect their establishments.
The designation still retains some of that informality. No authority regulates the conduct of SCOPs or addresses complaints against them, although a court can revoke their commissions. The state does not track the number of arrests they make or citations they issue.
Most SCOPs patrol corporate campuses, work for neighborhood associations or perform code enforcement for counties or cities, but Youlen has pushed the model further by creating his own “department” and turning policing into an enterprise. He contracts his services to nine apartment and housing communities in the Manassas area. That’s up from one in 2012.
SCOPs are free to call themselves “police” in Virginia, although the new bill would require court approval. Youlen recently dropped “police department” from the name of his operation, anticipating that lawmakers would restrict use of the term. It is now called Manassas Junction LLC.
Youlen, who is a former police officer, said he sees his work as a complement to the Manassas force, not a replacement for it. He said he provides the type of intensive policing, hands-on engagement with the community and attention to small problems that the city simply doesn’t have the resources or manpower to provide.
“I’m a part-time police officer and a part-time advocate,” Youlen said of his work. “And I would hope a part-time role model and steady security presence for these communities.”
On the night Youlen wrote the suspended-license ticket, he pulled his black Ford Fusion with tinted windows out of the Colonial Village Apartments around 8 p.m. Youlen, 30, spends his shifts circulating among the communities he covers until the early hours of the morning.
He deals mostly with loitering, traffic infractions, noise complaints, minor drug offenses and nuisances that can impact quality of life. He said he has never pulled his gun.
At one point during another patrol, Youlen rolled up next to two mattresses that someone had propped against a tree in a townhome community. He said he would return later to investigate and possibly issue a citation to the violator.
At another point, he checked in with the mother of a teen who had gotten into trouble with neighbors to make sure the boy was still in school and playing football. Youlen wore a black flak vest with the word “police” emblazoned across it as he talked to the woman.
Youlen said he turns any felony-type incidents, such as assaults, rapes or shootings, over to the Manassas police to handle, but if he does go to court he testifies and provides evidence in cases just as a municipal police officer would.
In many ways, Youlen’s operation functions much as any police department. Youlen has a dispatch number that residents can call and a daily blotter that he posts on the Manassas Junction website, along with fliers for suspects and notices about recent incidents. He gives reports about crime at homeowners association meetings.
In 2014, Youlen recorded 77 arrests and ticket citations and handed out 162 parking violations, according to his statistics. He responded to 221 calls for service.
Manassas City Police Chief Douglas Keen said he has concerns about Youlen, saying his presence has created confusion among citizens, magistrates and even judges. Keen said many who encounter him assume he represents the city.
“Any misunderstanding or confusion in this could greatly impact the relationships and trust within our community,” Keen wrote in an email.
Prince William County Commonwealth’s Attorney Paul Ebert said SCOPs’ lack of training and their backgrounds have sometimes undermined prosecutions, though he did not point to any specific cases. His office noted 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.”
But Crystal Terrant, owner of Burke Community Management, which manages eight properties that Youlen patrols, said calls to police have dropped dramatically since she hired Youlen.
“He’s cleaned up a lot of the petty crime and traffic stuff,” Terrant said. “He offers a sense of security to residents. He’s befriended the kids, so they respect the property more.”
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A handful of incidents involving SCOPs in Virginia and nationally have focused attention on the training and oversight of private police.
In 2009, a SCOP who owned a private security firm got into a heated argument with a woman over parking at a Newport News, Virginia-area shopping center, according to court records.
Kevin Bukowski hemmed in the woman’s vehicle, and then he and a partner pointed their guns directly at the woman and a friend as they sat in their car with two children, court records show. Bukowski was convicted of abduction, and the state revoked his SCOP registration in 2012.
“I was unjustly punished, but there are a lot of problems with the system,” Bukowski said of SCOPs. “You got these guys running out there as security officers who couldn’t make it as police officers.”
In another incident in 2012, a SCOP on a motorcycle with flashing lights and various law enforcement-style stickers pulled over a Virginia State Police special agent driving on Interstate 64 near the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, according to court records.
The SCOP asked the officer why he was going so fast. The officer replied, “Who are you?” and flashed his badge, according to court records. The SCOP then rode off.
Backers note that SCOPs can play a valuable role and that problems are rare.
John Hall, president of American Security Group in Richmond, Virginia, said his company employs SCOPs. He said they provide an affordable way to boost security for many communities.
“There’s a void in a lot of the [homeowner’s associations], light rails and business parks,” Hall said. “There has to be some type of role there between public and private.”
To become a SCOP in Virginia, an individual must register with the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services. That requires the applicant to pass a criminal background check and an alcohol and drug test. The new bill ups the training requirement to 130 hours for armed SCOPs — still far less than the 580 to 1,200 hours required of municipal police officers in the state.
The individual then petitions a circuit court to be commissioned with the sponsorship of an employer.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe is expected to sign the bill increasing training and regulation for SCOPs. Sen. Thomas Norment Jr., who sponsored it, said he would like to eventually bar SCOPs from calling themselves police and using flashing lights. The current bill allows them to do both, with the permission of the courts.
“I’m pleased with the progress, but there is still some work to do,” Norment said.