A short response to Adam White

I don’t dispute any of Adam White’s “5 reasons why it’s difficult to privatise the police”. But if instead we think about the privatisation of policing, I think he overlooked a sixth important factor – namely the normative and police-centred positions on privatisation and pluralisation of policing provision that have been taken by so many academic commentators and official reports in the U.K. and elsewhere.

In terms of public reports, the position on privatisation taken in the 2013 report of the self-styled “Independent Police Commission”, titled Policing for a Better Britain, provides a good place to start. The Commission was chaired by a former Metropolitan Police Commissioner (Lord Stevens), and was comprised of 39 members. Eight of these were associated with the private security sector, and at least three of those had previously held senior public police positions. Despite its title, the Commission’s report was almost all about the public police. Less than seven pages of its 225-page report were devoted to a discussion of the role of the private sector in policing and security provision in Britain, and this discussion was framed entirely in terms of public police “partnerships with the private sector” and the “outsourcing” of “public police functions” to private sector contractors (pp. 67-71).

Despite a passing reference (on p. 145) to Brodeur’s (2010) idea of a “policing web” (correctly characterised in the report as “a complex, interwoven net of public and private agencies responsible for policing and security within any given society”), the possible implications of this idea for the future of policing in Britain were not considered in the report. There was no discussion of the significant contributions that private sector policing provision makes independently of the public police. Instead, all of the Stevens Report’s discussion about privatised policing focussed on the supposed risks involved in outsourcing of public police functions, examples of problems in this respect (e.g. the London Olympics “G4S fiasco” (p. 68) – for which, of course, the government that contracted with them was equally to blame), some suggestions as to how these risks may best be minimised and managed, and a set of five principles to ensure that such outsourcing would be extremely limited. In other words, the report’s review of the role of the private sector in policing and security provision was an entirely public police-centred one which did not in any way address the radically changing policing provision environment in which pluralisation of policing provision has become the norm, both domestically and internationally, or what might be the appropriate role of the public police and their relationships with other policing providers within this changing environment. None of the burgeoning academic literature on this topic was cited in the report. In this respect, the Stevens Report is in sharp contrast to the recently released Council of Canadian Academies Expert Panel’s report on Policing Canada in the 21st Century: New Policing for New Challenges (2014 – accessible online at http://www.scienceadvice.ca/en.aspx).

There is little doubt that the Stevens Report’s discussion of police privatisation was strongly influenced by the overwhelmingly negative literature on private policing that has recently emanated from some police scholars in the U.K., with titles referring to it in such terms as “A Tainted Trade?” and “Private Security: Democracy’s Dirty Little Secret”. Indeed one of these scholars was a member of the Stevens Commission. A great deal of British (and not just British) literature on private security focuses (typically anecdotally rather than systematically) on problems associated with the contract security industry, while almost none of it discusses the role of in-house security organisations (many of which are headed up by former senior public police officers), or the significant positive contributions that the private security sector makes to the security and safety of citizens, as well as to national security and anti-terrorism, around the world. Equally importantly, much of the recent academic literature on private security takes a strong normative position against private sector involvement in public security and safety provision while glossing over the empirical evidence of the pervasiveness of this involvement all over the world. While Hugo Chavez, for instance, was ideologically opposed to private security in Venezuela, it is sobering to think what the security and safety of people in cities such as Caracas, Johannesburg or Kabul, to name only a few, would be like if they weren’t there. Indeed, President Hamid Karzai’s proposal in 2010 to ban private security from Afghanistan provoked an anguished outcry from international humanitarian organisations and several diplomatic missions in that country, who insisted that private security were the only people who effectively guaranteed the security and safety of their employees, since the state (public) police were corrupt, infiltrated by insurgents, under-resourced, ill-trained, unreliable, and prone to desertion in the face of challenge. The proposal was soon abandoned. Such problems have commonly driven the resort to, and reliance on, private security protection in many countries of the world.

Calls by myself and other colleagues (most recently, Stenning & Shearing 2012; see also Ayling, Grabosky & Shearing 2009) for a more balanced, less police-centred, less emotive and ideologically charged, and more empirically informed debate about the role of the private sector in an era of plural and globalised policing provision (Brodeur’s ‘policing web’), have gone largely unheeded by most of those who profess to be ‘policing’ (as opposed to just ‘police’) scholars. Until this changes, the development of sound policing policy to address the policing challenges of the 21st Century will continue to be an elusive goal. Perhaps the members of the Policing Network can be looked to to encourage and undertake the kinds of research that are needed to inform such a debate.

Philip Stenning is a Professor of Criminology at School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: p.stenning@griffith.edu.au


For more information see:

Ayling, J., P. Grabosky & C. Shearing (2009) Lengthening the Arm of the Law: Enhancing Police Resources in the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)

Stenning, P. & C. Shearing (2012) “The shifting boundaries of policing: globalization and its possibilities” – in Newburn, T. & J. Peay (eds.) Policing: Politics, Culture and Control (Oxford: Hart Publishing), pp. 265-284.

4 thoughts on “A short response to Adam White

  1. Pingback: BSC Policing Network

  2. Pingback: ¿El proceso de privatización de la seguridad es imparable? – UOC Ciudad

  3. Pingback: ¿El proceso de privatización de la seguridad es imparable? | UOC Ciudad y Urbanismo

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