They protect rich Americans
Violence divides America
America lives in fear of robber, violence and murder. Some people protect themselves with the help of professional security forces. Others isolate themselves behind walls in private communities.
Text by Inger Fermann
They are dressed in black commando uniforms, wear bulletproof vests and carry heavy revolvers. They are equipped with the very latest in surveillance technology and have specially trained dogs purchased from the French Armed Forces. As a rule, however, they do not need to use their 357 Magnums. They generally solve the problem before it gets to that stage.
These "men in black" are employed by one of the divisions of Critical Intervention Services (CIS), a private security company with headquarters in Tampa, Florida. They are trained to fight urban crime, but their methods are somewhat unconventional. Their real weapons are cooperation and dialog, rather than the use of force.
They work in high-crime urban areas in an America that feels increasingly terrorized by violence, burglaries and robberies. Shootings and gang wars on the streets and drug sales going on every street corner have led to an ever-larger number of Americans sitting isolated behind locked doors.
CIS goes into housing areas where neither the federal police nor conventional security companies are willing to work any longer. On their many patrols in these most dangerous neighborhoods, they eventually come to know the residents personally, and become friends with their kids, in particular.
This was exactly the goal of K.C. Poulin, 30, in 1992, when he founded CIS with an initial capital of two thousand dollar, which he borrowed from his father. Since then, the company has grown tremendously, and now covers most of the areas requiring security efforts.
Poulin's objective was to make especially violent neighborhoods safer places to live in. The basic concept was for his men to earn people's confidence, establish a close, direct contact with a group of neighbors, regardless of race or color.
They do this by becoming friends with the kids, playing football or other games with them, and doing things like giving the poorest children Christmas presents. Their main job is to be a latter day version of the old style neighborhood cop.
"Their relationship with the kids is of crucial importance," says Poulin, since after kids turn 13 or 14, it's practically impossible to rehabilitate those who have already gone the wrong way."
"We have to act now. Go out on the streets, get to know people who live in the roughest areas, and work with them," Poulin declares.
His customers are generally the owners of rental apartments in problem neighborhoods. Poulin also wants to work with them, but expects them to do their share. One of his requirements for a contract with CIS is that the rental apartment landlords clean up the apartment houses and ensure that the outdoor lighting works.
This formula has produced results. In neighborhoods patrolled by CIS, criminality quickly decreases by half, and often completely disappears over time.
Rich Americans have found another solution to the problem of violence. Many of them have found contentment in splendid isolation, not just from the surrounding neighborhood, but from the entire society as well.
Up to 15,000 people live in each small, private community, built like bunkers, and surrounded by high walls. The few strategically-located "town gates" are thoroughly guarded, and the streets are patrolled day and night by armed community guards. The rules of the town are strict, and must be followed by all those who have chosen to live there.
The first golden, ghetto which set the standard for the others was built in 1968, in California, about 100 km from Los Angeles, by a few wealthy families. They called it "a little piece of paradise," and built 4,800 homes of various sizes on a large area protected by a three-meter high wall and barbed wire.
Before anyone is allowed in through the gate, he or she is checked against a list of residents and guests. There is a limit of six guests a day for any resident. Residents are fined if they go for a walk in the area without their ID card.
Uniformity is the key word that controls everything. The color of the house, the hedges, the height of the grass—all must comply with the decisions of the management. Cars are not allowed to be driven in the area, and may not be parked outside a house, only in the garage.
Golden ghettos have golf and tennis courts, restaurants, clubs, swimming pools and schools. The only contact the residents have with the outside world is through their work. All this gives rise to a total rejection of deviations, and the isolationist mentality of the residents continues to increase.
Escape from reality
Today more than eight million people live in these communities throughout the United States. Instead of "a piece of paradise," many people would rather call these communities, "a little bit of hell."
"I can see the negative sides of this system, but we moved here to protect our two daughters," says Paul Kastes, a member of the Board of Directors of East Lake Woodland, just north of Tampa.
"If you can afford this, you have a choice, just as you can choose a private or public school. We use newspapers and television to show our daughters what is happening in the world around us, and they see how fortunate they are to live here.
To Poulin, the head of CIS, this kind of talk is devoid of common sense.
"There is no logic in protecting yourself from these problems by locking yourself inside over-protective walls," he explains.
"These problems will grow outside, and it is only a matter of time before they will hit these bunker communities as well. After all, these remain as ticking time bombs, and create an even larger gap between rich and poor in a country that already has a much too large gap.
"The kids in there grow up in a refuge, with an idea that life is a pretty picture. They are totally unprepared for the realities that exist in the real world, outside the high walls.
Poulin views America with concern, as a country where neighborhoods are separated from each other by electric fences and armed guards. "What is happening to the idea of a unified American nation," he asks. "Are we trying to create a Disunited States?"