This blog post continues the discussion on private security from two earlier blogs by Dr Adam White and Professor Philip Stenning. Those earlier posts can be accessed here:
On the Study of Private Security: A Response to Philip Stenning
Professor Ian Loader and Dr Adam White
We tick almost all of the boxes of Philip Stenning’s recent depiction of British policing scholars who study private security. We approach the industry from a ‘police-centred’ – or, more accurately, ‘state-centred’ – position. We are acutely aware of the ‘risks’ it poses. And we openly describe private security as a ‘tainted trade’ (indeed, one of us helped coin the phrase, see here). Almost all. One box remains unticked. For us, these characteristics do not necessarily equate, as Stenning suggests, to a ‘strong normative position against private sector involvement in public safety’. Quite the opposite in fact. We think they serve as a solid foundation on which to better incorporate the private sector in public safety. Far more solid, in fact, than existing regulatory blueprints which tend to approach the industry as an ‘ordinary’ trade, indistinct from repairing cars, delivering parcels, or walking dogs. In this blog post, we expand on this claim. We do so not simply to clarify misrepresentation. We’ve also just published an article on this exact theme – ‘How can we better align private security with the public interest?’ – and we’re keen to promote it.
Let’s begin, however, with some points of agreement. Stenning is quite right: we do approach the industry from a ‘police-centred’ position. In our view, the industry’s operations play out under the long cultural and institutional shadow of the police. For good or ill, private security does not possess the symbolic power that has been accumulated by the police in liberal democracies. This does not automatically cast the industry in a negative light. Indeed, when citizens are in the grip of an oppressive police force, private security can take on an almost emancipatory hue, as Stenning rightly suggests. But it does mean that where private security coexists with a reasonably legitimate and effective police force, it tends to be regarded as something like the second best option. And, regardless of which of these scenarios plays out, we place great value upon the normative position that policing should as far as possible be anchored in the public sphere, not in the market. These ‘state-centred’ propositions do shape our analysis of the industry.
Stenning is also right that we are acutely aware of the risks posed by the industry. To be sure, for those willing and able to pay, private security offers advantages in terms of value for money, flexibility and expertise. It can also often generate positive externalities by contributing to reductions in crime rates. Yet it is also a cause for concern. Fierce competition results in the proliferation of budget services and technologies that erode the wellbeing and safety of citizens. Unequal buying power not only means that the rich enjoy privileged access to the market but also that security resources are often distributed in inverse relation to need. Commodifying security into discrete goods tailored to individual, community and organisational preferences chips away at the trust and solidarity required to guarantee equal protection for all members of society. In our view, these are risks that should not be ignored.
Stenning is right too in saying that we regard the industry as a ‘tainted trade’. We do. It is at this juncture though that our position parts company from Stenning’s depiction. Stenning suggests that we deploy the term ‘tainted trade’ as a normative position, asserting that scholars who use the term are negatively disposed towards the industry. For us, however, it is an empirically rich category. Many in the industry see the police as the dominant institution and think policing ought to be anchored in the public sphere. They are also very attuned to the risks their line of work poses to the democratic order. They too have a ‘police-centred’ worldview. In sum, the depiction of private security as ‘tainted trade’ forms part of the self-understanding of those who work in the security industry – it is not simply a label pinned on that industry by critical observers. This is why security firms spend so much time engaging in legitimation activities designed to align their activities as far as possible with the public sphere, such as seeking regulation, dressing their employees up in police-like uniforms and employing ex-police officers wherever possible.
Recognizing this does not negatively dispose us towards the industry or its role in public safety. Rather, we think it offers a platform for new ways of thinking about how to align the industry with the public interest. In our view, this can best be done by inviting the private security industry into the regulatory process as moral actors who are conscious of how their chosen profession impacts on the democratic promise of security rather than recalcitrant economic actors who blindly follow the terms and conditions of contracts and nothing else. Anyone interested in our analysis, and our proposals for a new ‘civilizing’ model of regulation, can find our more by clicking here.
Scholars of private security should not approach the industry from a standpoint pre-loaded to reject it – and that is not our stance. Nor, conversely, should they be pre-committed to celebrating or promoting it. The plural provision of policing is a fact of modern social relations – and would most likely remain one even under conditions of greater economic equality. This calls for a grounded analysis of the benefits private security brings (and for whom) and of its social risks and costs. It also calls for an approach to regulation that seeks to reconcile security markets with the democratic promise of modern security – the idea that all citizens have a stake in, and merit equal consideration when determining, the protective arrangements of the political community to which they belong. It is this reconciliation that our analysis has sought to advance.
Ian Loader is a Professor of Criminology and Professorial Fellow of All Souls College, University of Oxford: firstname.lastname@example.org
Adam White is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Sheffield: Adam.White@sheffield.ac.uk
Response by Professor Philip Stenning
This is a good, and welcome, response to my earlier piece. Although I don’t agree with some of its key arguments and assertions, I’m not going to write a ‘rebuttal’ because (a) I’d prefer to leave the floor open for others who may wish to have a say, and (b) I’m going to be addressing several of these issues more fully in a paper I’ll be delivering at the ESRC conference on “Markets in Policing: Comparative Experiences from Europe and Beyond” at Leeds University on 11th-12th July 2016.
Philip Stenning is a Professor of Criminology at School of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Griffith University, Queensland, Australia. E-mail: email@example.com