Should private companies be undertaking police work? Dave Woodhall argues not.
I read the other day that the police intend to use security guards at crime scenes. This came a few months after central government unveiled plans to allow the same type of unaccountable figures powers of arrest when it comes to such matters as failure to pay fines and breaching community penalties. It’s the sort of thing that most people aren’t bothered about, because it isn’t very important and it won’t affect them.
Except that this is another example of the creeping privatisation of law enforcement. Whatever else might be said, the main reason these measures are taking place is down to cost. It’s cheaper to employ a security firm to do the job than a police force. It’s cheaper because no security guard will ever be as well-trained, or as good at the job, as a police officer.
My particular concern is that once the line has been crossed, where does it stop? We already have private companies responsible for some areas of law enforcement, such as the litter officers of New Street and the train companies’ revenue protection teams. Security companies patrol areas that are open to the public. Security guards are employed in many shops and public buildings. And if my recent experience is anything to go by, the thought of these people given greater powers makes me very wary indeed.
I’d just visited my local Sainsbury’s. I’d paid for a couple of things, walked out of the shop and across the car park, crossed the road and was on my way home when someone came up to me and asked to see the receipt for the goods I’d just bought. A bit surprised, I showed it to him and he then demanded to see what was in my bag.
By now I’d regained my composure and saw that whoever this man might be, he had no identifying clothing nor was he showing any identity cards. I refused his demand, to which he replied, “Then you’re banned from the store”. I was fine by now; someone else may have felt threatened and humiliated at being approached in public and ordered to prove their innocence to an individual who didn’t tell them who they were and what they represented.
At this point I got a bit annoyed at this man’s intrusion into my affairs, his refusal to introduce himself and the accusation he’d made as to my honesty. I decided to go back to Sainsbury’s and talk to someone in authority. I also decided that it might be a good idea for my own safety to record any further developments.
The man didn’t like this. He held his hand in front of his face and told me that he’d take my phone off me (a direct threat). Entering the shop once more I stopped filming and spoke to a customer services assistant. They said that someone had been seen walking out without paying and I was the only man leaving the shop at that time – which made me wonder why it was that they could know a suspected thief had left but not what he looked like. I wasn’t offered an apology but I was told that filming someone in public was illegal. I pointed out that it wasn’t, along with evidence.
Someone else then arrived, who I was told was another security officer. Neither he nor his colleague had any identification badges on display (contrary to the security industry’s code of conduct) and when I pointed this out he explained that officer no. 1’s badge must have slipped inside his clothing while rushing after me – which anyone who has ever had a badge on a lanyard round their neck would know is extremely unlikely. I wasn’t told why officer no. 2 (whose presence had not been requested and was not needed) was equally unidentifiable.
However, he did tell me that I was being “aggressive” and had “an attitude”. The customer services assistant agreed with him, although neither could tell me in what way my behaviour was unacceptable. Neither did they hear the first security man say the word “Twat” to me as he walked away. Knowing that there was no point in continuing this conversation, and with the first officer saying, “Go away. Goodbye. Go away” I left the store.
I later contacted Sainsbury’s head office, who a couple of weeks later replied to say that they had investigated my complaint, including studying CCTV footage (which presumably showed that I had been neither aggressive, nor had anything resembling an ‘attitude’), and would I please accept their apologies, together with a £40 gift card. This was donated to Birmingham City Mission’s Christmas appeal, so at least some good came from the affair.
And that is why, in part, I don’t welcome the recent news. I don’t have a problem with the police, or policing in general. They aren’t perfect but on the whole they do a good job. I do have a problem with the increasingly blurred line between law enforcement agencies and the public. I don’t like the way in which ostensibly public areas are patrolled by individuals who, as I saw, often have a sketchy knowledge of the law and of their own authority. I don’t like profit-making private companies, whose prime duty is to their shareholders, being used in the place of a police force whose duty is to the community.
My incident might be a minor, case far removed from the instances previously mentioned, but as we’ve seen in other government initiatives, once private enterprise is allowed to enter into the public sector, no corner can be considered untouchable.