I have been following with avid interest the hotting-up of the debate about the contracting-out of police functions, in the context of the Coalition Government’s wider plans to contract-out other parts of the public sector to the private sector, including the NHS and parts of local government. Hence, I was not entirely surprised to read the headlines in The Guardian over the weekend about the plans for the privatisation of policing. According to this report, the intention is to extend the contracting-out of police services beyond police custody (something which was civilianised in the 1990s, but began to be contracted-out to the private sector in the 2000s) to other police functions including patrol and investigation. In particular, it is looking likely that West Midlands Police and Surrey Police will lead the way in issuing multi-billion pound contracts to the private sector for providing some of these services, thanks to them having Chief Constables who are favourable to such developments.
This signals a new phase in the workforce modernization agenda in policing, though at the same time takes us ‘back to the future’, having parallels with the patterns of policing that existed prior to the birth of the ‘new police’ in 1829 when policing became more firmly located within the state. Whilst it signals a new phase in policing, it also appears to be a continuation of the project of privatization that began under the Conservative Government in the 1980s and 1990s when the private sector were delegated to run parts of the prison estate and when various nationalised industries including British Rail, British Coal, British Telecom and so on were privatized. Growing up in the 1980s in Doncaster – a former pit town - I remember the disruption, devastation and deprivation that this caused all too well.
So what to make of these latest developments? Is it the end of the (policing) world as we know it? Or at least as I have known it in my lifetime? I think a few issues are worth flagging. We are entering into untested waters. Whilst contracting-out has slowly been emerging in police custody, there have been few studies to have systematically examined its consequences for police officers or citizens. Mine being one of them. Consequently, some key questions remain unanswered, particularly if contracting out is to be extended to other parts of the police organisation: Will it cost less? Will it lead to improved service delivery and who will benefit from these changes? Is it something that the public want? What about the consequences for police officers and the policed, for that matter? We simply do not know the answers to these questions. I have a research grant application pending for a study which will delve into the complex answers to some of these questions, in relation to police custody. (Fingers and toes crossed that my bid is successful). Surely, it is better to have addressed these questions in relation to all the relevant areas of policing where contracting-out is to be trialled, before contracting-out is rolled-out to West Midlands and Surrey Police and beyond?
There is also a more fundamental issue at stake in relation to the proposals to contract-out a wide variety of police functions to the private sector, which have traditionally been performed by police officers. What should policing look like in contemporary societies, where cuts to police budgets by up to 20 per cent is a reality? Should parts of the police role be handed over to the private sector? If so, which police functions? And where should the thin blue dividing line be drawn? The power of arrest seems to have emerged as one task that the police believe should remain with the police.
Answering these questions requires an appreciation of the link between the police and society. Policing scholar, Robert Reiner, describes the police as like ‘litmus paper’ reflecting the unfolding exigencies of society. The social conditions of policing shape the kind of policing we have and we believe to be right, whilst the police in turn contribute to patterns of social ordering, as well as to societal norms and values. For instance, if the police – a key institution of the State, at least since 1829 – is to be privatised, what does that tell us about what we as value as a society? That saving money and cost effectiveness, the free-market, and private sector profit should be valued over a strong role for the state in bringing about justice and contributing to the security of society?
This alerts us to the fact that in fundamentally altering the way that policing is delivered through contracting-out, more is at stake than simply whether or not private security companies patrol neighbourhoods or lock someone up and take their fingerprints at the police station. What is at stake is how we see ourselves as a society and what we value as important. Widespread contracting-out of a variety of police functions spells not only the end of the policing world as we currently know it, but also, and more fundamentally, an end to a society which values the State in delivering justice and security.