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Private police in public space (2): who’s defining roles

York, Salisbury, Winchester, Windsor, Basingstoke, Solihull, Birmingham; a few of the town and city centres that have hired private security guards to patrol public spaces, like the police. It’s happened in those places without debate and is likely to carry on happening elsewhere. Mark Rowe asks where’s the national debate, and who’s taking on the job of defining roles, setting national guidelines for those patrollers, how they liaise with the police, what they do in self-defence, all the things that police are taught?

It’s for the public authorities to write such detail, not the private firms tendering to provide the service.

In central government, the Home Office’s politicians have never shown much political interest in private security or the sector regulator the Security Industry Authority (SIA), since the Labour Government that at least had to show an interest when founding the SIA. The Conservative Government of PM Boris Johnson has so far only sought the headlines by announcing 20,000 extra police. Leave aside whether that will undo the cuts of the 2010s, or whether 20,000 is the right number, or how to ready the police service for such an unprecedented influx of recruits, or even whether the police need more bodies – for all the police warnings that they could only cut so many per cent before they were cutting into bone, the sky has not fallen in on the country, crime-wise.

The Home Office minister for policing Kit Malthouse does have a background in the subject – he was from 2008 to 2012 deputy mayor for policing under the then mayor Boris Johnson. However, he or the Home Office show no signs of even being aware that the landscape of town and city centre policing is changing profoundly. Instead the Home Office publicises its favourites – gadgets, such as ‘new technology designed to spot hidden weapons’, which doesn’t get to the roots of knife crime and knife-carrying, and even if it does, it needs people to confiscate the knives, and in any case what of the daily reality of shop crime and anti-social behaviour in fast food restaurants, at bus and railway stations and on shopping mall floors. But gadgets are something to fund, to point to, announce and be photographed alongside. The other Home Office favourite: schemes, such as ‘civil servants volunteering as special constables will get up to 12 days paid special leave a year to spend more time supporting their local police’; laudable, but again hardly getting to the root of real problems.

Perhaps police should tell private security people how they should be equipped and trained to patrol public space like the police? There is a company, Police Crime Prevention Initiatives (PCPI), that’s the accreditation body for Business Crime Reduction Partnerships (BCRPs); the accreditation process is based on a set of standards owned by the police’s National Business Crime Centre (NBCC). That accreditation doesn’t drill into detail of telling BCRPs how to train their patrollers; PCPI and the NBCC alike don’t have enough staff to do that, even if the question were raised. For BCRPs, the number one issue has long been data protection. And in any case, that’s a different piece of accreditation from the community safety accreditation scheme (CSAS), also looked after by PCPI.

In any case, the landscape is mixed; BCRPs rely on members typically national retail and pub chains to choose to join and pay for services. Business improvement districts once voted for are compulsory, and they are hiring their own patrollers, causing an undeclared war in some towns and cities because BIDs are competing with BCRPs. In some places, such as Salisbury, the council is funding the patrollers. So a national lead would have to come from police, the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC); or the Association of Police and Crime Commissioners. But they have many other things on their plates that are more politically pressing; such as knife crime and hate crime, and the drug trade.

In fairness, the change to public space policing is happening piecemeal, at a different time in each town. Arguably most disturbing is that in each place the debate is so muted, or ill-informed, or never happens, because civic society – a local press, local activists and councillors – has become so weak, for whatever reason (drowned out by the internet, rendered powerless by large battalions, the sheer complexity and pace of change of 21st century life).

It’s been happening for years already. In 2013, Securitas was promoting its service to paying businesses in Manchester city centre. The crucial change was that Securitas had police blessing, that was publicly withheld even one year before. But such private-policing-of-a-public space is part of a much larger, neo-liberal trend, of the private sector, the market, taking over formerly what was in the public domain, including the very ownership, the right to be, in that space; and a cause of the ‘housing crisis’, including those homeless people who are among the reasons patrollers are hired to police. See here the work of writer Anna Minton, such as her book Ground Control.

Thus while there was a flurry of media interest in use of facial recognition with CCTV around King’s Cross, which the King’s Cross development stressed that it no longer used, it was only to help the Met Police and British Transport Police – there was little notice of the larger policing of the regenerated area by King’s Cross station, including by uniformed patrollers from when you emerge from the King’s Cross stairs.

Just as public planners are allowing the transformation of urban space as studied by Anna Minton, so police, local and central government are allowing private patrollers to profoundly alter public policing. To air some questions; if you feel you get bad customer service off a BID or BCRP patroller, let alone that one puts hand-cuffs on you – say it’s a case of mistaken identity – who do you complain to? How does the accused patroller defend themselves, for where are the guidelines on use of cuffs, to refer to? What training are patrollers required to have, if any, beyond the four-day basic training for their SIA badge? What should the patroller’s PPE (personal protective equipment) be – the same as a police officer’s? If not, why not, because if a patroller is stabbed to death by a shop thief with a big knife, could that leave the guarding contractor or the hirer open to a charge of corporate manslaughter?

To spell out, the patrollers are not the villains; they want to do the right thing – they are in the job, after all, finding it satisfying to serve shoppers and shop workers, often people they know – many of the guarding companies taking on this sort of work are relatively local, rather than the big national guarding providers such as G4S, Securitas and Mitie. Patrollers want to be trained, and equipped (they’re doing front-line, police-style work; do they have the same back-up as the police, if faced by a man with a knife?).

Ultimately, it comes down to public (rather than customer) service; how does the public feel about the first response on a high street, whether after a pocket is picked or someone trips and cuts their knee on the pavement, is not an ambulance or a police officer, but a hired private security officer?

Picture by Mark Rowe; October 2019 weekday afternoon, private security officer checking fire doors and walking the perimeter of the Printworks, central Manchester.

See also part one.


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