‘Plural policing’ should come at a cost

‘Policing’ is increasingly falling to private security and citizen-led initiatives. Yet the wages and the training don’t match the responsibility. So what can we do? 

The popular 2003–2015 British crime show New Tricks, repeats of which appear regularly on New Zealand television, is about a trio of detectives brought out of retirement and attached to a London police squad to help investigate unsolved crime.

It’s an entertaining premise—but it’s no longer as fictional as it once appeared.

Earlier this year, Essex Police advertised for civilian volunteers, including retired officers, to work alongside detectives. This followed the Home Secretary’s 2015 proposal to give stronger powers to police volunteers to take witness statements and even detain suspects.

The reason is austerity. Since 2010, some UK police services have experienced budget cuts of up to 25%. The result has been a dramatic reduction in officer numbers: From 144,353 in 2009 to 122,859 in 2017. One MP observed ‘it’s the thinnest blue line I’ve seen in my life’.

Though widely interpreted as desperate populist posturing, Boris Johnson’s promise to recruit 20,000 new officers won’t make up for those already lost, nor the additional number required to match population growth since 2010.

It’s little wonder that many Chief Constables have identified volunteers as a solution. As of July 2018, 40,000 police volunteers were operating in England and Wales, adding an estimated £75-80 million of value.

In the United States, volunteer policing is also growing. There reserve citizen officers operate with full police powers—including authority to use firearms – a practice that can be traced back to the deputising powers of the local sheriff, and which originated in the Posse Comitatus and ‘hue and cry’ of medieval England.

Such developments might sound a long way from New Zealand but in fact are already here—albeit in more limited forms.

Through a process called ‘pluralisation’ New Zealand Police no longer enjoy a policing monopoly, if they ever truly did. Many other organisations are now involved in the delivery of policing and the police no longer supply society’s primary crime-deterrent presence.

The private security industry is the most obvious manifestation of ‘plural policing’ and its worldwide growth means there’s no longer any role performed by police that is not also somewhere and under some circumstances provided by private security. In New Zealand, the ratio of licensed security personnel to sworn police is just over 2:1.

There’s also been a renaissance of citizen-led policing. A prime example is Community Patrols of New Zealand (CPNZ). It has grown significantly over the past decade and now has 150 patrols and 4,500 patrollers operating around the country. Brought about through funding and logistical support from the Ministry of Justice and Police, CPNZ has transformed from a loose collection of ad hoc local patrols into a sophisticated national organisation whose members are now vetted, trained and uniformed.

Its role has expanded too. Historically confined to non-confrontational ‘eyes and ears’, its additional duties now include monitoring CCTV networks, helping to steward large events, and providing assistance during civil emergencies.

CPNZ’s activities in 2018 included: 160,000 hours patrolling; 1.2 million kilometres travelled; 30,000 hours monitoring CCTV; and reporting over 40,000 incidents to police.

While the ‘capable guardianship’ supplied by CPNZ has made an important contribution to community safety, there is currently no way to measure its specific impacts through following reported incidents to their final outcome. To evaluate its actual crime prevention impact, and reduce the reliance on anecdote and perceptions, this important omission needs to be addressed.

The most important development, however, is the remarkable growth of private security. Numerous factors help explain this shift, including police withdrawal from some services. In the 1980s, the Police executive declared the private sector was better placed to provide some services than police. For example, commercial alarms used to be hardwired into police stations, but the service was discontinued because of insufficient resources and other priorities. Until the 1990s the police routinely patrolled semi-public spaces, such as shopping malls and sports stadiums. As police withdrew from these spaces, security companies filled the gaps.

There has also been a notable increase in private investigation. Now most types of fraud are investigated by private companies or in-house investigation teams.

All these developments represent a creeping process of privatisation. It wasn’t announced anywhere nor the subject of any meaningful political debate. It just happened.

Our increasing reliance on private security means it’s essential that it’s personnel and services are up to scratch. Yet industry regulation here continues to lag behind other countries, including Australia. Until 2013, there was no mandatory training for public-facing security, just about anyone could apply and likely be approved for any security-related role. You just had to submit your license application and pay your money. Now, at least, there is an expectation of training.

However, despite the significant responsibilities it entails, guarding— easily the largest industry sector—remains an essentially minimum-wage position. In other parts of the world the responsibilities of private guards are clearly recognised and reflected in the quality and quantity of training. In Sweden security guards have a minimum of 300 hours of mandatory training. In New Zealand it’s as little as two days and where training is confined to a classroom setting shorn of any practical ‘on-site’ component.

Even industry insiders, as my research reveals, recognise the poor standards and low levels of professionalism associated with the guarding sector— often described as the industry’s ‘Achilles heel’. So too does the New Zealand Security Association, which continues to lobby for improved regulations and more effective enforcement while also working with educational authorities, training providers and other stakeholders to raise the quality of industry training.

If plural policing continues to develop in New Zealand, it’s entirely plausible that even more duties could be delegated to private security and citizen volunteers. In fact, establishing a volunteer rural constabulary was recently considered, but then rejected, by the Coalition Government. However, before any further delegation occurs, better quality training and industry regulation and a more proactive enforcement approach to current regulations is required. If this can be achieved, then with plenty of models to emulate, including those in the UK, policing here may also be learning New Tricks.

Trevor Bradley is a Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington. This piece was first published in Newsroom, 15 November 2019.

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