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:

Adam White is a Research Fellow of the Centre for Criminological Research at the University of Sheffield:

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:



One thought on “

  1. Criminologists may have been predominantly focused on the inequalities that have been sustained by and sustain the security industry, affecting public safety, trust and feelings of security. In undertaking the study of private security, (acknowledging Ian Loader’s research has done so) criminology overall has scarcely explored the inequalities and privileges experienced by the people who are designing, selling and delivering private security services and products. Their meaning-giving to inequalities and privileges, which shapes and is shaped by their normative judgement of private security, requires further, in-depth scrutiny in the study of private security.

    Another point to be considered more extensively here and in future debates, is that, in case we want to define and comprehend security in terms of a public-private division (which seems to become more and more irrelevant to use, analytically at least), it is hard to deny that agents of the state (e.g. police officers, politicians, inspectorates, etc.) are thinking in and “doing” corporate styles, as much as, for example, security officers and managers, uphold principles associated with the public domain of the state.

    This mix or transcendence of private/public attitudes and practices became apparent when I studied a specific strand of security, namely port security, from a bottom-up point of view, for which I worked alongside operational security officers in ports and port police officers, as well as police and security managers, and security company’s business consultants. It became clear during my research with that, as much as the operational police and security participants police (stigmatised) groups of people—therefore actively holding up social division—sympathise with and even feel part of the very same marginalised groups they police against. Meaning, those who may be a threat to, in this case the port, are sympathised with by the (frontline) public and private agents of port security. This has to do with the fact that frontline police and security officers felt themselves exploited and marginalised by grand social forces maintained by governments and the corporate sectors alike (e.g. neoliberalism, capitalism, radicalism, etc.). That sympathy transcends and criticises private-public divides. By the way, port police and security officers shared the same types of attitudes and frustrations with the state and the market behind security these days. I think the same type of public-private transcendence takes place in public and private healthcare, public and private education, public and private transport, public and private military, etc. These would be interesting and relevant fields of study to explore and learn from, in studying private/public security.

    The transcendence reveals the private/public security divide may belong more to the imaginary then being a (promised) good by a solidly anchored state or a purchasable product of the liquid (security) market. Therefore, the ‘study of private security’ should be (epistemologically) problematized itself to begin with due to the idea of an imaginary instead of actual private-public divide, and is best served if the view from within, on itself, is analysed.

    Therefore, and following the debate going on here, the social scientific inquiry into private security could be advanced by taking three (not necessarily mutually exclusive) questions into account to analytically comprehend and critically evaluate private security.

    Private security:
    1) as a (non-)normative undertaking itself (and calling it a non-normative undertaking is a normative statement itself)?
    2) as a subject of normative, social scientific evaluations?
    3) as a narrative about norms and normative (scientific) approaches (a tool for theoretical, methodological and epistemological self-reflection)?

    In my opinion, to work with, as well as critically reflect on these three questions when researching private security, is to acknowledge that leaving from a state-centred or police-centred perspective to evaluate private security and criticising such a perspective for being normative (which itself seems normative to me), limits the potential for researching private and public security. It is therefore useful to let those establishing private (and public) security talk themselves about their state and market of security, and more importantly, to let their perspectives and meaning-giving to their work in security become the unit of analytical scrutiny. By focusing on such an emic-perspective of the individuals delivering private security (and public security!), a critique from within the private/public security realm on itself can be retrieved, which is inherently normative. Analyses of private security then should be, in that case, a device to collect, channel and communicate the critique from within, also to be used to reflect on the used theory, methodology and analysis in the study of private/public security.

    So, in addition to the earlier comments made here, the study under scrutiny would benefit from a(nother) (re)conceptualisation of security before engaging empirically, in order to comprehend security as something that goes beyond a public “good” and a private “evil” (and vice versa!), which may mean that the study of private security (and public security) itself deserves a different language and a normative reconsideration, before it starts to dissect and comprehend security. It would be a holistic language that needs to be developed and would transcend the imagination of the public-private divide (and its normative implications), as much as the imagination and practices of port police officers and security officers transcend that (more and more outdated) analytical divide.

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