The end of public policing as we know it

Copy of one of Rupert’s articles printed in The Intersec Journal

Tuesday the 27th of February and I am sitting at my desk, the school run done, cold fingers gratefully wrapped around a mug of tea and I am pondering a way to start my article on the future of public policing.  Writers block not withstanding I take a quick look at the BBC News website and there was my start point.  Chief Constable Sara Thornton was commenting on the interview by the Met Assistant Commissioner Mark Rowley that basically the UK Police couldn’t cope with Terror and Crime at the same time at current levels. Incidents were up, money was down and continuing to go down, not a comfortable calculation or statement to make.

I had the idea for the article while studying for my CPP qualification.  At the beginning of 2017 I had a realisation, whilst helping my daughter with her homework and chatting to her about the importance of lifelong learning (poor thing’s only five), that I had been so busy working, that I hadn’t done any self-development or saw sharpening myself, for some considerable time. 

So, I looked around, took advice and finally settled upon a blended Distance Learning and residential course in all round security skills.  A way to fill in the gaps in my knowledge and catch up with current thought and best practice.  While reading the books I happened upon a chapter which surprised me it was about how policing was about to change.

What exactly are the implications of what those two senior Police Officers have said?  Under the current strain they can’t fight terror and do community policing well enough.  I don’t claim to have my finger firmly rooted on the pulse of the UK economy, I read when get a chance but like most of us, have to catch snippets here and there when I can. 

But no matter how busy you are, you can’t have missed the fact that we’re rather short of money as a nation.  Every function of Govt is taking crippling cuts and services are failing around us.   How are the Police expected to deal with an uptick in terrorism on a reducing pot of money. Quite honestly, I think most people don’t care as long as they don’t have to see it or hear it.  But someone has to.

I would like to take you back very briefly if I may to Sept 11, 2001.

I was at work when the twin towers came down, sitting at my desk completely unaware with my headphones in, happily working away in my own little bubble.  I looked up from my computer and the place was deserted, I made myself a brew and went looking.  Men and women in small clusters staring at radios open mouthed, brushed my questions aside irritated trying to listen “What’s going on?” Bin Laden and his gang had bought down the Twin Towers, and that day ushered in a new fear that seems to permeate our lives still on many levels.

Since that dreadful event and the increasingly sickening events that followed it, we have become accustomed to seeing horrors on our TV, entire countries are ablaze and emptying, hundreds drown escaping the horror.  A growing realisation has been dawning on those in power that there needs to be a rethink in the way we police the land.

In 1837 a gentleman named Robert Peel created the police force in London, which was “of the people and for the people.” Designed to be a cohesive force that would professionalise protection for the people of London and greatly improve safety in those dark, foggy streets that we now only glimpse in BBC Dramas. 

Since its inception we have as a nation become so accustomed to the idea of placing our faith in a single agency as the guardians of our safety, that nowadays we couldn’t conceive of an alternative.  Private police forces are the preserve of immensely wealthy gated communities surely, there’s no place for them in Boscombe or Oban.

But before Robert Peel founded the public police, safety and security was indeed organised by villages and districts, comprised of volunteers who were called on to do their bit.  There were appointed officials known as Shire Reeves (where the word sheriff is derived from) who would coordinate and oversee matters, but by and large it was a volunteer force that stood up to the trouble makers and patrolled the streets.

Close to where I live there’s a neglected part of town that the local council seem to have forsaken.  One Saturday I was in my local branch of a well-known national newsagent.  As I bought my newspaper, the guy serving said “Excuse me a moment sir” and calmly reached for a walkie talkie on the counter.  Lifting it to his mouth he calmly spoke into the handset “Hey everyone, Ron has just passed my shop and is heading for the fountain”.  

Ron, I later discovered was a local shoplifter and low life, who was usually an hour away with his pockets full of booty, by the time the police arrived to take a statement, shrug and say, “Nothing we can do sadly”. The shop owners had had enough and decided to club together and do something about it. 

They got together, about 10 shops and cafes, bought walkie talkies, and came up with a bespoke solution to deal with him and others like him.  The larger chain shops who could afford a security guard allowed their guys to visit the smaller stores, so that they all benefited from the umbrella.  I remember thinking what a great idea it was, rather than just grumbling about the police and how they weren’t getting value for their taxes they’d found a simple solution by clubbing together.  Most thieves, fraudsters and their ilk will almost certainly just keep stealing if they don’t think they’re going to get caught, which clearly Ron thought would go on indefinitely.

So while I was sitting reading my CPP books up popped the idea in the text that like it or not (and most people won’t like it I expect) the relationship between public police (cops/bobbies on the beat) and private police is going to evolve into something more permanent.

Public police – the bobby or street cop.

Currently a public police officer on the beat, must deal with a bewildering array of incidents, call outs, disturbances and people in any given month.  There is a good amount of pressure from the media and high public expectations not to put a foot wrong in a wide variety of different situations. And at all times to carry yourself properly and courteously in the face of what sometimes must be frightening abuse from an unhelpful public.

He or she must be a competent generalist and to have his finger on the pulse in terms of the rules and regulations of the law and of course the characters, shop keepers, common problems in that large neighbourhood.  The addition of body cameras to protect themselves from prosecution and body armour to protect themselves from fundamentalists and crazies of all stripes must weight heavily especially on the young members of the force.

Then there’s the paperwork, and not forgetting the politically correct minefields in what seems to be still a very masculine organisation with lots of banter to deal with the stress. It is a lengthy process to get into the police and most ex-policemen that I know, would not chose to do it now which doesn’t help with recruitment and retention.  Add to this the additional burden as a public force of dealing with terrorism it starts to look like an almost impossible weight to bear.

Private policeman.

Compared to the street cop or bobby on the beat, the private security guard or private policeman will have a much more narrowly focussed job description and smaller range of potential incidents to deal with on a day to day basis.  His patch would most likely consist of one or two buildings and he would have the opportunity to become intimately familiar with his area, which would mean he’d notice the smallest changes. 

He or she would be able get to know the rhythm of the area, the local trouble makers (what time they appear) and would be able to suggest ways to improve things or deal with them or even help them.  He’d also hopefully build a level of trust with other staff at his place of work, who would in turn be able to voice concerns to him/her.

He’ll have an area that he will patrol so if he sees a broken window he can investigate it as soon as he sees it and see off the youths who did it or call work services who can fix it. There will be a limited range of things that can happen at a static location which will mean that his response time will be quick and effective as he or she is already on the scene.

Private police can be recruited and trained, given their arcs of responsibility within a short space of time and can be out their protecting their employers patch in fairly short order.  If they aren’t great at their jobs or show little aptitude they can be let go.

In some parts of the US ex-policemen are involved in these initiatives and are fostering greater links with the public police.  Current public police are involved in training their private counterparts and are even endowing them with limited legal powers of arrest and detention until a cop can arrive.  Despite the obvious cynicism about “hobby bobbies” forces in the US are seeing the benefit in a noticeable reduction in crime, which means the public are happier as are the public force.

Not long after the Paris Terror attacks the French army were on the streets in force, I thought at the time it was an odd thing to do because the terrorists were very unlikely to do it again in the face of Legionnaires armed to the teeth.  But then the penny dropped, the Army were on the streets to let everyone in France know that the state had their backs, and to let the criminals know that they were still being watched.  More importantly it allowed the Gendarmes the time and space (not distracted by the routine business of preserving order) to pull all the stops out to do good old-fashioned police work to catch the perpetrators and bring them to justice.

With limited funds to share around and potentially a whopping great bill from Brexit I don’t think we’ll be going back to the days of Shire Reeves and policing our own streets.  But I do think the wind of change is blowing in such a way that as the threat from International and home grown terror increases there will be more and more private policing arrangements to ease the burden on an overburdened public police who just cannot preserve order on our streets and combat terrorism without help.