We published a blog last year about private prisons in Australia, and whether they may be seen to encourage reoffending.
Many feel that because private companies such as Serco provide a service in exchange for economic gain, there is an obvious conflict of interest – in other words, private prison companies stand to gain more money from expanding their services and incarcerating more people for longer.
Bearing this in mind, how would you feel about the privatisation of the police force?
It might seem like an abstract concept, but it’s certainly not unheard of.
In several overseas jurisdictions, security and policing services are already contracted out to private companies.
In South Carolina in the United States, security officers are equipped with the same powers as police to make arrests.
Under the law of that State, security officers are considered to be ‘law enforcement officers,’ meaning that they have the power to carry out certain police functions, such as the issuance of traffic infringement notices.
Meanwhile, in Canada, the services of railway police (who serve a similar function to our own transit officers) are also provided by private companies.
Whilst these may seem like relatively minor examples of private policing, it’s important to remember that a mere thirty years ago the privatisation of prisons was almost unheard of.
And given the current economic climate and massive funding cuts to public services – coupled with the current government’s ‘tough on crime’ approach – it may only be a matter of time before private companies are invested with police powers.
So, if private companies were to take on policing duties, where would we start?
One possibility might be to invest security guards with greater powers – for example, broader arrest powers and the ability to issue ‘on-the-spot’ fines for certain conduct.
This would seem an obvious starting point given the state government’s apparent crackdown on alcohol-fuelled violence, and the role that security guards play in preventing and controlling aggressive conduct within clubs and bars.
Security companies already share a close relationship with police and are often involved in crime management and prevention prior to the arrival of police.
By investing private security personnel with greater policing powers, we could relieve some of the pressure that is currently placed on police to respond to incidents quickly and efficiently – particularly during peak holiday periods and weekends.
Further, some argue that allowing private security personnel to perform police duties would clarify their legal roles and functions and hold them more accountable for their actions.
Currently, there exists some confusion about the extent to which security personnel can forcibly remove patrons from premises, conduct searches and arrest people, and there is an overarching danger that they may be sued for assault or false imprisonment.
As well as this, the privatisation of some police services presents a golden opportunity to cut costs and increase efficiency.
For example, one San Francisco community sought an emergency response service and put out a call for tenders. A private company was about to outbid the State department; offering a contract at half the price quoted by the State, with twice as many patrol cars and a significantly shorter estimated response time.
Yet despite those supposed benefits, there are obvious downsides to privatising the police force.
Many of these disadvantages can be illustrated by examining the problems associated with private prisons.
Perhaps the most obvious disadvantage stems from the apparent conflict of interest that would result from privatising police services.
Private companies generally exist to make some kind of economic gain and, like any business, profitability is tied to expansion and growth.
By expanding the services of security companies, we run the risk of ‘over-policing’, or arresting and prosecuting people for victimless crimes such as public intoxication or drug use.
There are also concerns that by utilising the services of private companies to carry out police functions, the quality of training and education of these personnel would diminish.
Police currently have to undergo a recruitment and education process prior to joining the force, which includes study and training.
Police are also provided with a degree of training on how to respond to emergencies and use special equipment.
It is unlikely that private companies would be willing to invest in the same amount of training system to their personnel.
Without adequate training, there is a serious risk that security and other personnel may abuse their powers or exercise them inappropriately, and thereby cause greater harm to society.
One only has to remember the brutal bashing of 19-year-old Nicholas Barsoum in 2011 by three security personnel at Sydney’s elite Ivy nightclub to see the potential for abuses of power.