Privatizing the Peace

They're being asked to do more, but their budgets are under increasing pressure. Perhaps it's time to rethink private policing

John Lorinc
Picture of security guard at Vancouver Olympices

Olympic security officials show what Olympic spectators can expect for security  screening during an exercise in Vancouver, B.C. in February  2010.

Law enforcement spending has long been the third rail in most democratic societies, and calls to cut funding for cops are often seen as political suicide. But U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, facing severe budget pressures, has made dramatic moves to rein in police expenditures. National police expenditures have shrunk by 20 per cent since 2011, and the number of officers patrolling British communities could plummet further by 2020. This has drawn warnings from police unions, predicting mayhem and the need for paramilitary units. Some top police officers are also calling for large-scale mergers of the 43 police agencies in England and Wales, according to the Financial Times.

Other jurisdictions have already embarked on this kind of law enforcement triage. In the aftermath of the credit crisis, California lost 4,000 sworn officers and 3,000 civilian support staff between 2008 and 2011. In Australia, a private firm called Suburb Safe launched a fee-based community policing service last year using a combination of technology, vehicle patrol presence and personnel hired exclusively from the neighbourhoods being policed. Similar firms have sprung up in the U.K.

In Canada, police agencies have not experienced this kind of attrition and outsourcing—not remotely. But critics on both the left and right say Canadian cities are spending too much on policing, especially since crime levels are at record lows. “Between 2001 and 2012, police
officers per 100,000 population in Canada rose 8.7 per cent while the crime rate declined by 26.3 per cent,” wrote Livio Di Matteo, a Lakehead University economics professor, in a September 2014 study for the Fraser Institute.

Joe Hermer, an associate professor of sociology at U of T Scarborough, believes Canada’s police services need to find ways to delegate mundane or non-emergency tasks to others who would be given highly specific enforcement powers—either private security companies or civilian
peace officers.

“It’s policing we should be spending money on,” says Hermer, “not just the police.” He notes that the federal government commissioned research on the “civilianization of policing”  last year. “There needs to be an honest and open discussion about reorganizing police manpower in a way that makes sense,” he says.

Policing costs are driven by equipment and technology, but also by crushing salary expenditures. With hundreds of experienced Toronto officers now earning over $100,000, payroll outlays can gobble up as much as 85 per cent of a police services budget. Moreover, because cops can’t strike, arbitrators reward them with generous annual increases.

This cost escalation has prompted the close examination of a “tiered policing” approach to delivering routine aspects of policing services. The approach relies not on sworn officers, but on what are known as police community support officers (PCSOs), as well as private security guards.

A 2014 discussion paper from the Canadian Police College reports that the number of PCSOs in the U.K. has grown to 15,000 since 2002, resulting in “considerable” savings. Written by Paul McKenna, a public safety expert at Dalhousie University, the paper also cites U.K. survey results that show PCSOs as being popular with residents, who say their presence makes communities more welcoming and less susceptible to street crime. Vancouver and Winnipeg have community safety officers distinct from police officers and with a more limited range of duties.

The tiered-policing approach has direct parallels in health care. Surgeons with several years’ training should not be treating cuts and bruises. And in recent years, there has been a move by health ministries to create integrated health care teams that include physicians, nurses, physiotherapists, nutritionists, midwives and other allied health professionals.

Hermer notes that in Canada a range of specific and limited policing functions is already being delivered by private firms or civilian enforcement agents. These include airport security teams and municipal bylaw officers. Universities, transit authorities and public housing agencies employ peace officers some park wardens have recently been granted the right to carry weapons, and Ontario’s privately managed nuclear plants are guarded by private SWAT-like guards.

Moreover, organizers of major events hire private security. In total, Vancouver’s Winter Olympics, Toronto’s Pan Am & Parapan American Games and, on a different note, Toronto’s 2010 G-20 summit saw hundreds of millions paid to private security forces, to augment police ranks. “The size of those events demands private security at a low level,” says Hermer, noting that organizers look for a “mixed economy” of policing.

However, in jurisdictions such as the U.K., where fiscal pressures have prompted governments to outsource policing tasks, the urgent drive to  cut costs may take precedence over
detailed planning. The move to privatize should prompt municipalities and other orders of government to return to first principles, cautions Hermer. “What type of policing do we have, how do we pay for it and how do we ensure accountability?”

He points to the enforcement checks that police make on large trucks travelling provincial highways. He sees these as an example in which “...you could imagine a large security company doing [this] routine enforcement.” Police say some of their officers have been killed while doing routine highway checks. But Hermer’s response is that it need not be an either/or proposition; the private contractor would be assigned to perform very specific duties.

By delegating more mundane duties, police services could direct more resources to less visible forms  of criminal activity, such as child pornography and corporate fraud. Police oversight boards might also consider creating more stratified authority, and boosting the ranks of unarmed special constables. “The city is often looked at [by police services] like a huge crime scene,” Hermer says. “But a majority of police interactions [with civilians] are peaceful.”

However, such potential reforms raise questions about training, equipment and the thorny topic of police accountability. The latter has been under the microscope recently due to a series of appalling killings by police in U.S. cities, and—closer to home—a surge of criticism about carding in Toronto. (To “card” is to stop citizens and record various personal details, even though they aren’t criminal suspects. It has come under heavy criticism for being racially biased in practice.)

Considering accountability in the case of PCSOs, Paul McKenna says they must be carefully trained and then “embedded” in the police service. In jurisdictions that use them, PCSOs tend to be answerable to staff sergeants, who are part of a chain of command that extends up to the police chief and the police oversight body.

Private contractors are a different story. Hermer says firms whose personnel perform specific tasks are bound by commercial contracts. Private agencies, he observes, are not obliged to uphold rights laid out in the Canadian constitution. He says a legal contract, if drafted precisely, may provide adequate accountability—
but this is a highly controversial point.

Susan Eng (UC, 1972), is a former Chair of the Metropolitan Toronto Police Services Board and an outspoken critic of certain police practices. She says that despite all their flaws, law enforcement agencies, unlike private firms, are governed by civilian oversight bodies. This means they will always be answerable to the public at large. But “in the private security business,” she says, “the checks and balances are completely missing.”

Eng, who is now vice president for advocacy at the Canadian Association of Retired Persons, says, “The citizens have to consent to be policed.” (Hermer and Eng both contributed to a 2005 University of Toronto Press anthology, Re-Imagining Policing in Canada.) Eng acknowledges that some policing activities are already being done by non-sworn personnel and professionals from outside police agencies. As an example, she points to the Toronto Police Service’s approach to communities that are overrun by gang activity. During and immediately after high-profile busts, which often include a range of law enforcement agencies, the Toronto Police Service deploys the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) and blankets the neighbourhood with SWAT teams.

In keeping with the precepts of community policing, this kind of follow-up requires police to move quickly, bringing in social workers, community and spiritual leaders, and people from other agencies to work with youth and prevent the recruitment of a new generation of gang members. “There is a time to intervene, but you have to follow through and stop the cycle,” says Eng. “And that is not about policing resources.”

Ultimately, says Hermer, the issues at hand may call for a completely new way to govern the broad spectrum of security and enforcement functions required in large urban centres. “Instead of having a budget for the police to do what they’re doing now, we [could] have a policing budget that may or may not include the police,” he says. “We need a change in how we think about what policing is.”