Private police forces
Drastic cuts to public sector spending continue to hit police forces hard. In late 2017 it was announced that their budgets would be cut by £700m, but it should be stressed that the pressures which feed into many kinds of crime tend to build, rather than fall, during tight economic times. Recent statistics bear this out, with last year seeing a 22% increase in offences involving knives and sharp instruments, and an 11% rise in gun-crime. Headlines about these figures inevitably fuel public anxiety about personal safety, and the tragic spate of fatal stabbings in London is quite rightly a source of widespread concern. It is against this backdrop, that new stories have emerged about expansion of a private policing service. The company “My Local Bobby” began offering security patrols to residents in the wealthiest districts of London, and building on its success there, is expanding into the wider UK market.
This development raises a number of difficult questions about civil liberties and social equality. It should be emphasized at the outset that this private agency has no special powers, whilst its employees are not able to do anything more than other citizens. However, many of them are former police officers, and they are likely to have more training and experience than the average householders. They are also obviously in a position to keep an eye on what is going on in a particular neighbourhood, in a way which is realistically not open to most people who are out at work during the day, attempting to run a business from home, or negotiating sock-wearing and eating lunch with strong-willed toddlers. Furthermore, many people would feel uneasy about tackling strangers skulking around their wheelie-bins, as they would wonder whether they are there for drug-dealing, collecting documents for identity fraud, or just trying to change their shirt in a secluded spot.
Someone wondering this from their kitchen window might have fears about their own safety, and also be unclear about what they could and could not do, even if a stranger was on their property. Faced with a situation not worthy of a 999 call, and the knowledge that the police might not be able to respond for several hours to a non-emergency logged via 111, a person who could afford to pay might well be grateful to have some help in the short term. Moreover, the knowledge that uniformed patrols were around in the area might deter potential criminals from hanging around that particular bin-cupboard in the first place, and all things considered, it is easy to see why clients who use My Local Bobby might feel that it as a reassuring and useful service. It could also be argued that the presence of private patrols could relieve some pressure on the overburdened official police force.
Nevertheless, there is another side to the coin. In theory, the bin-cupboard lurker would not be having his or her civil liberties eroded, because the “Local Bobby” would not be in a position to do anything which the householder could not also have done lawfully. However, had they possessed the knowledge and inclination, it is worth considering whether the wider social implications are more complicated than this. Significantly, the legal and practical safeguards against ‘policing’ being delivered in a discriminatory manner in relation to protected characteristics, such as age and race, are considerably weaker where private companies are concerned. We are not suggesting that My Local Bobby would or does behave improperly. However, there is undoubtedly a risk of issues arising if these kinds of enterprises increase in popularity in the UK and there are real dangers of unconscious prejudice manifesting itself in problematic ways, even in the absence of deliberate racism or ageism. If young black men, for instance, feel that they are likely to be watched and pestered by uniformed security guards when they enter certain districts, we are hardly fostering a healthy and inclusive society. It goes without saying, we are not suggesting that there aren’t already controversies around policing and private security firms in this regard; , but that is precisely why we should worry about developments which might exacerbate an already problematic state of affairs.
Furthermore, what will the real impact be on poorer areas and more disadvantaged individuals? In theory public resources are freed to meet their needs if the more affluent are using a private service, but there are losses as well as gains. Firstly, there is the risk of the criminal behaviour simply being moved to a different area. It is not likely that many serial offenders will adopt a new lifestyle simply because certain streets are now difficult places to operate in. Secondly, if private security agencies do overstep the mark and harass people unlawfully, the more vulnerable their victims, the weaker the position they are in to seek legal redress. If a homeless person refuses to move from a bench where they were innocently enjoying the sunshine, and gets manhandled off it, how likely are they to be able to sue the person who assaulted them?
In short, if private police services grow in popularity, we risk creating zones of social segregation, and also seeing disadvantaged people treated with less worth and dignity than they deserve as equal members of our society. We should perhaps collectively think carefully about the factors which have produced a gap in the market for businesses like ‘My Local Bobby’, and consider whether there might be other means of addressing them.
Private Police Force Idea Criticised by Met Police Federation Chairman (DAB Digital Radio 7/5/18)
Police budgets to lose £700m by 2020, amid rising crime (The Guardian 9/11/17)
Crime in England and Wales: Year Ending December 2017 (Office for National Statistics)