Six reasons to fear the creeping privatisation of policing

While G4S has claimed it could save police forces $1 billion a year by running backroom services, residents in Hampstead, London, and in Frinton-on-sea, Essex have want to part-fund policing in their communities: either to subsidise a police officer through crowd-funding or to hire a private security firm. Other towns are being asked to consider paying more council tax to pay for more officers. As debate on the impact of police cuts intensifies, and as officer numbers are cut, other parts of the country are likely to look to these models for inspiration.

Here I identify six reasons to be concerned about this privatisation of policing:

1 Blurring accountability: While a private security firm may seem to be working in the short run, its employees will inevitably confront pressures and dilemmas policing the public. This raises a host of questions for how they will operate: will these security guards have powers of arrest or the power to detain people? If they can detain people, when does detention become arrest? Can they search people? Can they use force, and how? How will they be held to account for their decisions? Will they even know the law? Can they gather evidence robust enough to withstand court scrutiny? Can they withstand scrutiny themselves for their actions? And so on…

One suggestion has been that they will wear body cameras with that evidence given over to the police, but what if the camera breaks, is obscured or switched off? The bigger point is that no technology is a substitute for core policing skills and training. If these are applied well this is more likely to secure convictions, prevent injury or escalation, avoid costly mistrials and miscarriages of justice, or lead to perpetrators of crime going free. There are problems already co-ordinating within the police between specialist units and across force boundaries and this is among people who are highly specialised, have undergone the same training and have a sound understanding of the law. Putting another agency in between the police and criminals breaks the chain of evidence, which could see things missed or falling through the gaps.

Take any corporate scandal, then look at the organisational chart at that company. That will show roles and responsibilities, an organisation’s structure with boxes representing people and functions, and arrows linking those. The scandal never sits neatly in one of the boxes, it’s always in the gaps between.

  1. Inadequate training and recruitment: How much money will go into their training? Who exactly would be attracted to doing this kind of job and how would they be selected? Is it the right person to grapple with the complexities of police work? Doing policing well is one of the most complicated jobs you can imagine. There are multiple sources of social complexity, and compared to other public servants, police have unparalleled powers, they work in public spaces and often are faced with groups rather than individuals.

Across the world, one thing that is well understood about police work in democracies is that it involves grappling with dilemmas and the exercise of discretion – there are often no right answers. What will private security guards do in these situations? Learning to police is not just a case of knowing the law and learning a suite of tactics, models and procedures, it is largely about developing on-the-job experience, and drawing on a body of knowledge that other officers have. There is rich institutional memory and knowledge.

  1. Loss of link to the community: Even though funding more locally might seem to offer a greater connection, in practice having privately funded officers breaks a very important link between policing and the general public. One of the core principles of policing, that is at the heart of the British model can be summarised as “the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence”. Private funding breaks that Peelian model – security guards are company employees independent of the public, hired by one section of the community to police another section of the community. If security guards are funded by businesses and the wealthy, then are they likely to focus on serving the public good, or in the interests of their paymasters?
  2. Loss of public confidence: Alongside cuts in numbers, privatisation of policing will lead to a more remote service and a loss of intelligence-gathering capability that is crucial to make neighbourhoods safer. This is necessary to fight all kinds of crime. Terrorism has been in the news after the tragedy in Paris, but the cut in Community Support Officer numbers means a loss of capability in indentifying victims of trafficking and child sexual exploitation.

The public will not be clear about what the roles and responsibilities of these guards are, and there will be gaps in terms of reporting crime, gathering intelligence and gathering evidence. Are the public even going to recognise who these private security guards are and recognise their uniforms for instance – what if people impersonate these guards for the purposes of crime? Will they represent the community they police, and are they likely to improve or harm relations with disenfranchised communities? Many people would acknowledge these are problems for existing officers but would lesser paid, lesser trained security guards do better?

  1. Compromising crime prevention, and compromising care: Much of police work involves the provision of care to people in desperate circumstances – missing people, runaways, people with severe mental health crises. The police are often all that is left when it comes to trying to plug the gaps left when other services fail, or are simply closed – when people fall through the cracks. As Polly Toynbee put it recently, “We need the police to sweep up after the cuts in every other service”.

Understandably some people have been saying that faced with cuts the police should focus on crime and nothing else. But social problems are complicated and it is not easy simply to partition off activities like this. How many threats of suicide should the police attend in a night for instance? Should these be left to a mental health service that is over-stretched? Is someone who is threatening to kill themselves a danger to themselves alone, or to their family as well, or to others? How serious is the case of a missing person or teenage runaway?

Locally funded police of any kind may simply displace rather than stop crime. If a wealthy suburb can subsidise regular patrols and its neighbour can’t, then we are just going to reproduce and reinforce inequalities. A problem with localism is that those areas most able to afford police are also likely to be the areas in least need. Policing may be delivered locally, but it is also a national capability.

Locally funding police is not even in the interest of wealthy pockets of the country. Many of the problems we face as a society: cyber-crime, terrorism, trafficking and child sexual exploitation challenge our received understanding of borders. But private police mean that instead of one national institution comprising 43 richly connected forces, with a common history, we overlay this with potentially hundreds of new borders and boundaries – with firms jostling to compete for business in terms of what they are measured on, and with no interest in the public good.

  1. We can’t put the genie back in the bottle: The full effects of changes to the social fabric like this take many years to be felt, and the costs and benefits equation can look very different 15 or 20 years on. The legacy of previous part-privatisations and new institutional models (by both Labour and Conservative governments) is still with us in the form of huge PFI debt, a right-to-buy scheme contributing to a massive deficit of council housing, and a ‘private’ British Rail receiving as much, or more, subsidy as when it was publicly owned. If part-privatisation becomes institutionalized, and other towns adopt this kind of model, there will be no easy way to reverse this.

It is not clear privatisation will even realise efficiencies. At the moment, even if you hired 100 security guards in a town, the people remaining responsible for policing would be the police. The police will still be left holding the responsibility for any mistakes and errors. There is also a large exposure to the public purse in terms of miscarriages of justice.

What does the future hold, and what is the solution then? The PCC role seems here to stay and so there seem to be two trajectories, fuller embracing of devolution or things staying as they are. If devolution continues to accelerate then it would be likely to involve greater budgetary control and autonomy, potentially even more tax raising powers through change to the council tax. There are two main problems for this trajectory of greater devolution. The first is that, in the short-term at least, it will lead to greater variation and experiment, and this means some areas will suffer adversely. The second is that there is a massive democratic deficit at the heart of the system. In some places only around 11 per cent of the electorate voted in the PCC elections, and most people do not understand the role. If on the other hand we see things staying as they are the government is either going to have to row back on policing cuts, or press ahead with them which will risk harming the public good.

What we tend to see in social systems after field-changing innovations (like Hampstead, Frinton and elsewhere may be) are pressures of isomorphism – adopting a common model. After some initial shocks and experiments, different elements of a system tend to converge on one of a handful of models. Some communities or administrations may choose to copy Hampstead or Frinton freely, others may feel forced to – if your neighbours are renting security you might feel no option but to do the same. System-wide and over time these models become the “new normal” that we don’t even question, but because these are locally driven rather than the result of a national strategy there is a risk of different models emerging – some areas that need it most may have policing on the cheap. During this crisis, and it is a crisis for policing, stakeholders need to make the right choices even under the pressures of austerity, because otherwise the change may be irreversible. This may involve rethinking what policing involves, and rethinking concepts of cost and value, placing the public good before the public purse.

Kevin Morrell is a British Academy Mid-Career Fellow and Professor of Strategy at Warwick Business School. The microsite for his project is:

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