Newton Emerson: Are we ready for privatised policing?

Private security firm contracted by retailers in Belfast city centre shows potential for growth of industry

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson

Newton Emerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Irish News and is a regular commentator on current affairs on radio and television.

Legacy security staff in Belfast City Centre. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Legacy Link security staff patrolling Belfast city centre. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

We have become familiar with the idea of the health service collapsing towards partial privatisation. Less appreciated is how easily this could happen with policing.

Monday’s Irish News carried a fascinating profile of Legacy Link, a private security firm contracted by retailers to patrol Belfast city centre. The company’s ‘business protection officers’ have no more powers than any other citizen but they are trained as door supervisors, a regulated standard, enabling them to use reasonable force including restraint.

That can be sufficient to deal with nuisance behaviour and minor offending, where many retailers feel the PSNI is too over-stretched to cope.

Tommy Fleming, a Legacy Link client liaison officer, said: “Our guys are always looking for an empathetic approach and more often a simple ‘move on’ is more than enough to tackle that lower-rate crime.”

This is a neat summary of the principles of policing laid down by Sir Robert Peel two centuries ago. Legacy Link could call its officers Peelers, even if it cannot call them constables.

Town and city centres might seem like a special case and they are certainly where this industry is most visibly growing. In England, it is expanding into residential areas, offering groups of homeowners subscription services to patrol streets and investigate crime. A sniffy article in The Guardian last year mentioned one company charging between £100 and £200 per month for ‘beats’ of 250 houses.

Farmers in England are also turning to private security, although this is still relatively rare. Security firms are frequently run by former police officers who recruit from the police, echoing the private sector’s cannibalisation of the health service.

If private policing became visible in towns, suburbs and the countryside, what would still be seen as the exclusive preserve of state policing? Serious crime, public order and emergencies only, perhaps.

Legacy security staff in Belfast City Centre. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Legacy Link client liaison officer Tommy Fleming. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

One reason private policing seems strange is that we are accustomed to a monolithic public service. However, the UK’s policing system is strange by international standards. Many countries operate multiple tiers and types of police forces: local, regional, national, civilian and paramilitary (not in the Northern Ireland sense). Where there is only one tier, as in the Republic, it will invariably be one national force.

The UK has effectively one tier of policing comprising 45 regional forces. This odd arrangement can be sub-optimal at the local and national level. Organisations such as the National Crime Agency have been established for top-level cooperation but local policing cannot be so easily addressed. It is unglamorous, complicated, expensive and vulnerable when resources are tight.

Ad hoc privatisation is progressing in England and Wales despite a local policing tax, known as the police precept, being added to council tax bills. It is set by elected regional police commissioners and typically accounts for a third of police funding.

This system, introduced by the Conservatives from 2010, was supposed to make an accountable connection between what the public wants from policing and what the police require to deliver it. There are some areas where it has worked, most notably Greater Manchester, and others where it has not.

It seems unlikely to get a chance to work in Northern Ireland as it is difficult to imagine anyone at Stormont proposing the Policing Board be able to put up domestic rates.

Legacy security staff in Belfast City Centre. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN
Privately employed Legacy Link security staff in Belfast city centre. PICTURE: MAL MCCANN

The PSNI could be more forthright with the board, the public and itself about what it can and cannot do within its financial and legal constraints. Like many organisations, especially in the public sector, it will make general complaints about its budget but it is loathe to admit specific failings and does not want to surrender any part of its empire, even parts it has abandoned.

It could say, for example: “We are overwhelmed by retail theft and welcome private sector help.” It could explore public-private partnerships – the policing equivalent of waiting list initiatives.

What the PSNI actually said, when asked for a comment on Monday’s article, was: “The police service does not endorse any commercial enterprise.”

That was sniffier than The Guardian.

Private policing evokes particular unease in Northern Ireland because of the record of republicans and loyalists seeking to ‘police’ what they consider their areas. Some of these agendas have received a disturbing degree of official indulgence.

But the private security industry hardly wants to wade into troubled, segregated neighbourhoods. As with health, it will cherry-pick the most profitable work from those who can afford it, in town centres and leafy neighbourhoods, until the emergence of a two-tier system becomes impossible to deny.