"MOVE ALONG SIR," a commanding voice directs a homeless man sitting on the corner of First and Pike. "You are in violation of Seattle City Ordinance 117103 [No sitting on sidewalks]." Jerry, the startled homeless man, looks up expecting to see a cop, but instead he's met by a member of the Safety Ambassadors--downtown businesses' very own police force.

Patrolling the downtown streets since August 1999, the ambassadors have recently filled out their staff to 35 full-time members. The ambassadors are part of the Metropolitan Improvement District (MID), a business-improvement partnership between downtown businesses and the city, funded by a self-imposed property tax on downtown real estate. With an annual budget of $1.1 million, the Safety Ambassador program was created because there "weren't enough beat cops to walk the streets in the intensity we wanted," says MID Director Bill Detrich. Suited in matching bright blue-and-white uniforms, the Safety Ambassadors look like a cross between fast-food employees and well-dressed security guards. Since its inception, the ambassador program has tried desperately to separate itself from the rent-a-cop image. The Safety Ambassadors have been promoted merely as tourist guides, lending a helping hand to lost shoppers, the homeless, or inebriated citizens. However, the ambassadors are still what their uniform suggests--an unaccountable surrogate police force.

The Safety Ambassadors are working with--and being trained predominantly by--the Seattle Police Department. Of the 90 hours of training, nearly half comes from the SPD. Ambassadors are taught how to write reports, understand existing ordinances (like the Sidran no-sitting ordinance), learn radio codes, and assess potentially dangerous situations. Armed with an assortment of communications gear (no clubs or guns), the ambassadors "collect data, identify familiar faces and patterns," and then furnish the information to the police, says Detrich. Next month, the relationship between the police and the 35-member ambassador team will get cozier. A new MID base is opening on Third and Yesler in Pioneer Square, which will house Seattle police officers, Department of Corrections staff, and ambassador dispatchers. The base will be "kind of like a pit stop" where the officers and ambassadors can rest, get water, and "exchange information with each other," Detrich explains.

Predictably, downtown businesses love the ambassadors, and some even use them more than the police. "We call them all the time, almost every day," says Jeri Troutman, assistant manager of Franklin Covey. "The ambassadors get here a lot faster than the police do, so we call them," she says. Many other businesses, like the Gap and Sharper Image, echo Troutman's sentiments.

In its pitch to the public, the MID prefers to spotlight the sunnier side of the program, like helping businesses and tourists--while downplaying the police involvement. This is an attempt to "soften the image" of the ambassadors and distance them from the previous "paramilitary types" the MID formerly used as security, says Bill Hobson, director of Downtown Emergency Services.

Less predictably, some of the homeless seem wooed by the ambassadors. "They're a hell of a lot better than the old guys who used to think they were cops," says Mark, a shy, middle-aged man with a four-inch laceration over his left eye. "They were just too rough before," Mark's bearded friend Slim adds.

Admittedly, there are helpful things about the MID program. Every ambassador carries information on a variety of shelters and social services, and receives 20 hours of human-services training. In addition, ambassadors learn about Seattle geography, local landmarks, and receive 10 hours of customer-service training to accommodate shoppers and tourists.

However, when an ambassador starts to tell me about his own on-the-job experiences, we are suddenly interrupted by another ambassador: "We're not supposed to talk to you; we could get in trouble," he says. Herein lies the fundamental problem with the Safety Ambassador program and others like it: Unlike the publicly funded police force, this arm of the MID operates behind closed doors.

Indeed, according to MID policy, ambassadors are forbidden to talk to the press, and must direct all inquiries to the main office. Furthermore, the ambassador incident reports (which the MID summarizes monthly and shares with the police) are not available for public scrutiny. Our requests to see any were turned down. Public inquiry is just "too disruptive to our operations," says Detrich. Advocacy groups, like Street Outreach (the needle exchange on Second and Pike) and the newspaper Real Change, are concerned with the idea of having a private security force. "If Microsoft hired their own police force to roam the street, don't you think people might be a little concerned?" asks Real Change editor Adam Holdorf.

Seattle, along with a long list of cities like Minneapolis, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., has recently addressed traditional public concerns like safety and education with privately funded solutions. Although the Safety Ambassador program has a friendly face and stresses human-service efforts, a central point persists: It is an unaccountable uniformed presence, funded by business interests. Detrich and the MID like to emphasize the ambassadors' role with tourists and the homeless. It's a clever tactic. By highlighting the ambassadors as friendly tourist guides with a social-service bent, their indisputable role as a privately managed police force is insidiously obscured.