Making Public Police Private

Chris Williams, Lecturer in History, writes:
Most of us grew up at a time when it was pretty clear who were the public police, working in the service of the state, and who were the private police – security guards working for other institutions.
Things seem to be changing: the line between public and private is blurring. On the one hand, there’s been a lot of talk about UK police forces outsourcing ‘back-office functions’ (I have a bee in my bonnet about the concept of ‘back-office’ in policing, but I’ll save that for another post) to private companies. Much guard work, such as the transport of prisoners to court, the guarding of them inside courts, and the operation of several prisons, is now contracted out by various parts of the British government to private companies.
Today, this comment by Naomi Klein caught my eye. She’s just noticed that inside her local bank in New York, the guards are members of the New York Police Department – public police, who are being brought in through a contract between the bank and the NYPD.
This kind of thing might be on the rise, but, in the UK at least, it isn’t new. A few years ago I wrote an article (abstract here) for the journal ‘Policing and Society’ about the long history of public police being hired out on demand to a variety of private clients. This has been going on ever since we’ve had uniformed police.
One of the problems which it raises is – who is in charge of these police officers? The public body which swears them in, or the private body which is paying for their services? This question was a hot topic in the 1860s, when Parliament grilled the Met’s Commissioner about who was in charge of the police working in London’s theatres. He was adamant that although the theatre managers paid for them to be on duty in these private places, they were not taking orders from them.

Klein noticed the same problem:

In the event of a protest, I asked, whom would the officer be working for? The bank, or the city and the citizens of New York? “I wouldn’t know,” he said, and referred me to TD Bank corporate security. “He’s working under us when he’s here: we pay Paid Detail and the NYPD writes the checks.”

The same confusion was apparent in 1866: the Commissioner claimed that the constables on duty didn’t work for the theatres – but the memoirs of one of them, Inspector Tim Cavanagh, indicated that they did. The boundary between the private and the public in policing is likely to keep on shifting, and it bears watching.