Monday, March 5, 2012

UK Government rolls out plan to partially privatise policeforce

Life imitating blogging: a few days ago I talked about why it is a mistake to model government action on private enterprise, and now the British government is making a big privatisation push in two of its police jurisdictions. The proposal is for contractors to take over many of the tasks of the West Midlands and Surrey police forces, including (quoting from the news article):
investigating crimes, detaining suspects, developing cases, responding to and investigating incidents, supporting victims and witnesses, managing high-risk individuals, patrolling neighbourhoods, managing intelligence, managing engagement with the public, as well as more traditional back-office functions, such as managing forensics, providing legal services, managing the vehicle fleet, finance and human resources.
 This is a large and wide-ranging introduction of private actors into a central government service. The practice of having non-sworn staff at police stations is old and well-established, and isn't at all a problem - not everything that needs to be done at a police station is police work. But this proposal goes far beyond that. The police has been awarded extraordinary powers in our society because they perform a certain role: its rights and responsibilities come from its place in the structure of government. But the police forces in question are presenting their role as a service role. To quote the West Midlands spokesperson: "Combining with the business sector is aimed at totally transforming the way the force currently does business – improving the service provided to the public." This is simply a gross mistake - police work isn't a service role, like rubbish collection - it is a constitutive part of government.

The problem goes much further than conceptual confusion. Because the government gives the wrong description of its role, it will damage its capacity to perform its role as it reshapes the organs of government in this misshapen image. For policing this will most likely lead to less responsiveness by the police to complaints from the public in its jurisdiction, something which already is a perennial problem even in the face of laws and offices of government which oversees police action. Since the private contractors are not part of the police proper, there is another layer between the overseeing authority and the people doing the work on the ground. To do so in the face of the recent riots against police misdeeds in the Mark Duggan shooting is simply perverse. This is a dire mistake, and the people of the West Midlands and Surrey will be the ones who carry the costs.