The growth of private policing is eroding justice for all
Security firms stepping in for overstretched officers is another signifier of how austerity Britain is becoming more unequal
Martock is a 4,700-population village on the edge of the Somerset Levels. Superficially, it does not look like somewhere positioned on the cutting edge of social policy, with faint echoes of the future as imagined by JG Ballard and Philip K Dick. But viewed from a certain angle, a scheme that has been running since April might suggest something close.
Four nights a week between 10pm and 1am, some of Martock’s streets are visited at least twice by two employees of a company called Atlas UK Security Services, who drive a branded car, have body-mounted digital cameras, and are charged with keeping an eye on low-level local crime. They were brought in by the parish council when problems with noise, criminal damage and antisocial behaviour around a shopping parade began to reach a critical point: according to local councillor Neil Bloomfield, who took the lead in drafting in new help, Avon and Somerset police told locals they “couldn’t give us the level of patrolling we thought we needed to deal with it”.
When I talked to him last week, this ex-policeman explained that the new presence in his community was there to work as a “visible deterrent” and “gather evidence”, and that “if an incident takes place, they call the police”. He also talked about the fundamental story that sits behind what has happened: the fact that funding for the police in England and Wales fell in real terms by 20% between 2010 and 2017, that police numbers are at their lowest for 22 years, and that lower-grade police community support officers – or PCSOs – have also been drastically cut back (in Norfolk, they have been abolished altogether). Given the years she spent at the Home Office, this is Theresa May’s legacy – and whatever the Conservative mantras about doing less with more and concentrating the cuts in the fabled “back office”, the result has been a rising sense of on-the-ground anxiety, and now an inevitable step into the unknown, as some people and places explore other firms of crime prevention and law enforcement.
Bloomfield says he has been contacted not just by other towns and villages in his home county, but councillors from as far away as Kent. Their circumstances presumably echo those of Martock – where, he told me, across an area that takes in two similar-sized settlements and a total population in excess of 15,000, a permanent police presence now extends to little more than one “beat manager” and three community support officers. Millions of people will be familiar with what that means in practice: going for days without seeing even a patrol car, and the sense that if you phone the cops, you will be dealing with some distant call centre and a system of everyday policing increasingly framed in terms of metrics and targets that can be quickly ticked off before people have to move on to the next job.
The Martock model has the virtue of being funded by the lowest tier of local government, and thereby not restricted to particular neighbourhoods or individual citizens: it may represent a particularly remarkable form of contracting-out, but the service it delivers remains universal. In some of the nation’s most opulent areas, by contrast, private policing has taken on a very different form, thanks to a company whose branding is crass but effective. Called My Local Bobby (MLB) and set up by two former Met officers, its work has so far been concentrated on the London enclaves of Belgravia, Mayfair and Kensington, though there are indications that it is about to expand across the country.
Exactly what Robert Peel would have made of their service is a very interesting question. If you live in one of its operating areas, you can take advantage of three levels of protection. The “standard” package, which includes “alarm response”, “incident response” and a “dedicated Bobby”, costs £49.99 a month. For £50 more, you become “enhanced”, with the “support of experienced detectives for personal cases”, and a “personal cyber-assessment”. For higher fees that are apparently a matter of negotiation, an exclusive tranche of customers can apparently receive “close protection”, “manned guarding”, and “technical counter-surveillance measures”.
Employees wear red hats, bibs, and shirts and ties that give them the appearance of some new branch of official law enforcement. The firm is an offshoot of TM Eye, a private investigations company that devotes most of its attention to counterfeit and illegal goods sellers, but has also turned to cases of murder and rape. Like its parent company, MLB’s work extends to private criminal prosecutions. Among the testimonials in its promotional material is a tribute from an unnamed victim of crime: “I live in Belgravia and was robbed in the early hours while returning home. The police were unable to attend. I called the team from My Local Bobby and within hours a highly experienced detective attended and commenced an investigation. Additional high-visibility patrols were put in to support me.”
The point is inevitable: would that such dedicated service were available to the residents of less affluent neighbourhoods. Way beyond underground swimming pools and heliports, here, clearly, is yet another signifier of the way the UK is breaking into completely different social worlds, and how eight years of austerity have heightened those inequalities. But the story highlights something else: that if you hack back the state, the individualist market fills the vacuum. And as it does so, it threatens to damage some of the most basic aspects of the public realm: matters of accountability and common standards, and fundamental assumptions about community policing and what it is meant to achieve.
In an age of marketised and consumerised everything, the point cries out to be made: true policing is not a matter of customer service. Its provision is universal not just in the sense that – in theory, at least – we should all be protected by it, but also in terms of its most basic operations. If you join beat officers on the streets, you quickly discover a great deal of their work is not about seeing to individual complaints, nor being summoned to crime scenes and commencing investigations, but keeping a close eye on things that are ineffably social: from homelessness to drug abuse, to the serial failings of our threadbare system for treating mental health. You cannot reframe all this in terms of an individual service: by definition, it is collective. But as austerity carries on, how long can that hold?
In the future, people’s sense of security may well diverge to a truly dystopian extent. In one kind of place, private patrols will do the rounds, while people hang on to a closely guarded sense of security; in others, the protection of the law will recede even further. In fact, watching news stories pile up about levels of violent crime in areas (especially in the capital) where having access to one’s own “dedicated bobby” must surely look like the stuff of fiction, I wonder: might we be there already?