Policing: A Commodity To Be Bought And Sold?

3 Mar

Government plans to privatise huge elements of police work indicate a decisive shift to private provision within the criminal justice system. Is community safety a commodity to be bought and sold?

We are now closer to large scale privatisation of policing than ever before. The Guardian has revealed that West Midlands and Surrey police (two of the biggest forces in England) have offered a contract worth £1.5bn over 7 years, which will allow private firms to investigate crime, to detain suspects and to patrol the streets.

Should other forces become involved, the figure for the contract may rise as £3.5bn. This indicates that the previous £200m deal made by G4S and Lincolnshire police to run a police station look like the tip of the iceberg.

West Midlands police also contracted out some of its anti-terror operations to G4S, but this again pales into insignificance compared to the proposed scale of privatisation in the West Midlands and Surrey forces.

This is clearly a sea-change in the shift to private provision within the criminal justice system. The West Midlands and Surrey  forces (two of the biggest in England) have invited bids from private companies, including  G4S, to deliver a range of services previously undertaken by the police.

The Guardian has had sight of a  26-page “commercial in confidence” contract note sent to potential bidders to run all policing services that “can be legally delegated to the private sector” (i.e. excluding the power of arrest). The anticipated start date for delivery of these new privatised services is thought to be in February 2013.

Home Secretary Theresa May told the  Conservative Party conference in October 2011:

“We’re also going to help police by making sure that as we reduce budgets, we cut waste, not frontline services… there is no reason at all why frontline police services should not be maintained and improved.”

It is now becoming clear that what she meant: increasing private provision in policing, in addition to the biggest cuts in police numbers in a decade.

What might privatisation involve in practice? As early as next spring, we might expect to see private companies running a range of police activities, including the investigation of crimes, the dentention of suspects, the management of high risk offenders, the investigations of incidents, the support of both witnesses and victims, the support of both victims and witnesses, and the street-level patrol of individual localities.

Surrey Chief Constable Lynne Owens is quoted by the BBC as denying that there will be privatised street patrols:

“Any suggestion that a private sector company will patrol the streets of Surrey is simply nonsense. It would be no more acceptable to the public than it would be to me.”

However, the Guardian has published a extract from contract note for potential bidders for police services, which explicitly states the activities that a private sector company will undertake can include

“manage public engagement – patrol neighbourhoods”.

The Association of Chief Police Officers lead for workforce development, Chief Constable Peter Fahy, placed the privatisation moves in an economic context, observing that chief constables could not ignore the backdrop of the financial crisis. He indicated that other police forces nationally would be carefully observing the results of the tendering process:

“Police forces face an enormous challenge, particularly when you look at the cuts in the financial year 2013/14 and beyond. It is clear that only radical and fundamental change will allow forces to cope with this and maintain protection of the public. Politicians and the public have made it clear that they will not allow forces to merge and so economies of scale and efficiencies have to be sought elsewhere.”

Private security staff already manage major public events licensed by local authorities, for example, or monitor CCTV covering public space. In addition, privately employed store detectives currently detain shoplifters. In ACPO’s view, some policing functions could be undertaken by private companies:

“The office of constable and the discretion and independence of the police officer is a fundamental safeguard for the public but does not mean that others cannot take up functions which help protect the public and bring offenders to justice.”

From ACPO’s perspective, there are some tasks in a criminal investigation, such as gathering CCTV evidence or checking phone records, which do not necessarily need to be done by a police officer, and Fahy offers the reassurance that

“the investigation itself would always be overseen by a police officer in much the same way as a doctor oversees treatment of a patient although other healthcare professionals carry out particular tasks.”

Policing is already privatised in many areas of the USA. Proponents of privatisation in America have argued that it brings down costs, while simultaneously giving detection rates a boost. The justification for privatisation is laid bare by research by the Policy Exchange think tank (a favourite resource of the government).

While privatisation will arguably neither increase accountability nor raise performance, what it will achieve is the the maximisation of shareholder profit and ensure a small number of individuals become very rich. The loser may be social justice and community accountability.

The Policy Exchange (a favourite government think tank) have pointed to the increasing cost of the police, and argue that policing in England and Wales is among the most costly in the industrialised world. To support this assertion, they argue that UK police expenditure in 2010 cost more than that in the USA, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Under the heading ‘Inefficient Police Workforce‘, the Policy Exchange concludes that the case for an increased number of police officers is ultimately unconvincing, as it is rooted in the what they view as the “flawed” assumption that “more police officers mean more officers available to fight crime through performing front line, warranted roles.”

From the perspective of the Policy Exchange, the police service continues to be “monolithic – growing in size but not become more flexible or efficient with its staff. With respect to the police’s primary investment – its own people – this has led to a service with a large amount of wasted assets”.

Opposing voices come from shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper and Unison official Ben Priestley. Cooper responded to the Guardian’s report by noting that the police had confirmed

“They are pursuing these contracts as a result of the financial pressures they face. Yet the possibility of including the management of high-risk individuals, patrolling public places or pursuing criminal investigations in large private-sector contracts rather than core professional policing raises very serious concerns. It is fundamental to British policing that it has the trust of the people. That means policing decisions are impartial, in the interests of justice, stopping crime and catching criminals.”

Priestly concludes that privatisation will have the inevitable result of making the police less accountable to the public:

“Bringing the private sector into policing is a dangerous experiment with local safety and taxpayers’ money. We are urging police authorities not to fall into the trap of thinking the private sector is the answer to the coalition’s cuts.”

Police Federation vice-chairman Simon Reed also voiced his opposition to the cuts:

“This is an extremely dangerous road to take. The priority of private companies within policing will be profit and not people… This would have catastrophic consequences for the high level of service the public rightly expect and currently receive.”

A frontline policing perspective is provided by police blogger the custody record:

“Policing is a NOT FOR PROFIT organisation. We cannot outsource such work to private companies. They are not interested in policing. They are not interested in community safety. They are interested in bottom line profit returns and happy shareholders… corners will be cut, standards will be lowered and the people who will ultimately suffer are you.. the public and the officers out on the streets.”

These views notwithstanding, private provision of policing in the West Midlands and Surrey at least, will take a huge leap forward by this time next year. With the tectonic plates shifting in favour of privatisation within the criminal justice system with both policing and prisons, can the probation service now be far behind?

The Conservative/Liberal democratic coaltion government emphasises the centrality of markets and market processes.  The government is both ideologically inclined to, and strongly supportive of, privatisation.

We should hardly be surprised that competition for the running of police, prison and probation services may become an inevitable part of this process of wholesale marketisation.

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One Response to “Policing: A Commodity To Be Bought And Sold?”

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