The past few decades have witnessed the exponential growth of private policing in developed and developing countries. Whereas at one time, the state police force was considered to be the sole provider of security, currently it is commonly accepted that the state police force is but one player in a range of security providers. Alongside the rise in crime rates and increased insecurity and fear of crime, new threats are constantly being identified. These have both local and global impacts. Responses to these challenges constantly reshape the security landscape. During the past half-century a significant feature of this landscape has been the growth and influence of private policing initiatives.

Defining Private Policing

There has been considerable debate over the terms private police and private security. Often the terms are used interchangeably. At other times the term private police is used to refer to a range of players (vigilante groups, gangs, neighborhood watches, and so forth) of which the private security industry is one player. For many authors the term private police is problematic because it suggests that the public police and other policing entities share characteristics when they believe they should be sharply distinguished. One resolution of this has been the adoption of the word private policing. This usage defines policing as a generic function that various bodies might undertake in ways that can be quite distinct (Jones and Newburn 1998). Another concept that has gained currency recently is the governance of security, a term used by the commissioner of the Metropolitan London Police, Ian Blair (1998). In developing this conception the governance of security has recently been conceived as involving various ”nodes” and ”networks” within a conception of ”nodal governance” (Loader 2000; Johnston and Shearing 2003; Hermer et al. 2005). For the purposes of this overview, the terms private security and private policing will be used interchangeably to refer to the domestic and transnational private security firms and their diverse activities.

The Rise of Private Security

The rise of private security is not limited to the United States. Private security is a significant feature of the governance of security in many countries—for example, the United Kingdom, Canada, South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, Brazil, and many countries in Asia. Private security in the United States, which is our focus in this article, has had a long history, starting with the first detective agency, the Pinker-ton Agency—which coined the term private eye founded in 1850. The rapid development of other types of private policing soon emerged after that with the founding of the American Express Company in the same year. This later became the Adams Express Company, specializing in security transport. America’s first central burglar alarm and cash-carrying private companies were founded in 1858 and 1859, respectively. These developments have been attributed to the geographic features of the United States, which required mechanisms for the secure transportation of goods that public police, with their primarily urban focus, were unable to provide (Draper 1978; Sklansky 1999).

The early twentieth century might be thought of as a golden age of private detective firms. The Pinkerton Agency, for example, is credited with influencing the development of investigation techniques used by the public police through its systems of surveillance and its development of a file system that was used by the Federal Bureau of Investigation until it developed its own case file system (Sklansky 1999; Draper 1978; O’Reilly and Ellison 2004). Indeed, it was not until the 1930s that private security stature and legitimacy came to be questioned. A significant event in this process was the establishment of the La Follette Committee to investigate threats to civil liberties (particularly labor-related threats) associated with the private security industry. A particular cause for concern was Pinkerton’s use of espionage techniques and other methods to break strikes and monitor industrial activities.

The growth of both the size and stature of the public police began to surpass private security, and private policing remained largely unnoticed through the first half of the twentieth century (Sklansky 1999). In 1971 research conducted by the RAND Corporation revealed that the public police outnumbered private security agents and predicted that this trend would continue. By the early 1980s, however, a very different picture emerged. Private security was found to outnumber the public police and it was argued that this growth had begun in the 1960s and 1970s. One of the explanations offered for this trend was the inability of the public police to respond effectively to rising crime (Sklansky 1999; Joh 2004). This argument was confirmed in 1976 by a report commissioned by the Law Enforcement Assistance Administration that pointed to the inability of the criminal justice system to cope with crime on its own (Joh 2004). The possibility of partnership policing involving both public and private policing agencies has been a topic of debate since then. This debate has been accompanied by constant growth on the part of both the public police and private security.

During this period of sustained growth, private security firms undertook more and more of the tasks that had come to be regarded as the preserve of the public police. Indeed, today the private security industry in the United States performs many duties that were seen as core functions of public police—arrest, search and seizures, criminal investigation, public order policing, and patrolling public places. These are undertaken in addition to activities such as cash-in-transit operations, key-holding functions, security consultation, bodyguard and VIP protection services, and business intelligence services that are by and large the sole preserve of the private security industry (Draper 1978; O’Reilly et al. 2004).

Estimates of the size of private security in the United States draw primarily from two studies: ”Hallcrest Report I: Private Security and Police in America” and ”Hallcrest Report II: Private Security Trends 1970-2000,” published in 1985 and 1990, respectively. These reports suggest that the private security industry is approximately three times the size of the public policing sector. More modest estimates suggest that there are three private security agents to every two public police officers (Joh 2004; Sklansky 1999). It has been estimated that there are some ten thousand security companies in the United States, employing between one and a half million to two million security personnel (Mandel 2001). While estimates vary there is consensus that the private policing sector is larger, more pervasive, and more adaptable than the public sector. It is estimated that this industry generates revenues of up to $10 billion per annum (Joh 2004).

Private policing is a transnational as well as a national phenomenon. The responses to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have drawn attention to the existence of private military corporations (PMCs) that now operate in a variety of military capacities around the world. Many of these are based in the United States and the U.S. government is an important contractor for their services. It is estimated that this industry will be worth more than $202 billion by 2010. PMC services include tactical operations, logistical/intelligence support, technical military assistance and training, strategic advice/security consulting, and combat forces (Bharadwaj 2003; Singer 2005). Singer reports that the United States has signed more than three thousand contracts with PMCs during the past ten years.

Debates on Private Policing

With the rise in private policing there has been a concomitant rise in academic and policy debates about it. Since the early 1970s, research has been conducted on the size, scope, functioning, implications, and so forth of private policing. Described as a ”quiet revolution” (Stenning and Shearing 1980), the rise of private policing has been attributed to a number of developments, including the rise in mass private property (Shearing and Stenning 1980), ideological shifts in governance, the rise of a market-driven agenda coupled with the increasing withdrawal of the state as a provider of public goods, increasing crime rates, and growing public fear of crime. This, it has been argued, has led to a search for alternatives to public policing that has challenged state claims to monopolize the provision of security. Much academic and policy debate has been centered on attempts to define private policing versus public policing and many legal, sociological, and operational definitions have been formulated over the years. Bayley and Shearing (2001), for instance, differentiate between auspices and providers to account for the various combinations of private and public role players controlling and providing policing.

Various global trends and ideologies have affected the way policing is understood in a consumer-oriented society, as police duties have become increasingly privatized and commercialized—policing it is argued has become a commodity that can be bought by those who can afford it. Debates have focused on the implications of private policing; for example, the claim that private security creates a dual system of police that creates inequalities between rich and poor. Concepts such as networks, pluralization, fragmentation, and multilateralization have been explored (Loader 2000; Reiner 1992; Newburn 2001; Bayley and Shearing 2001). Others have referred to plural policing as creating a ”mixed economy” of policing (Crawford et al. 2005; Loader 1997). Yet other debates have focused on the changing nature of security governance with the state no longer necessarily controlling governance— the concept of ”zones of private governance” or ”nodes of governance” has been used to describe the predominance of nonstate agencies in the governance of ”communal spaces” (for example, spaces associated with gated communities) and notions of ”nodal-networked governance” used to describe the interaction of various nodes or loci of power (Hermer et al. 2005; Newburn 2001; Shearing and Wood 2003).

The changes in the nature of state provision of security have been described using the analogy of the state doing the ”steering,” while private corporations and organizations and the public are responsible for the ”rowing” (Osborne and Gae-bler 1992). Loader and Walker (2005) have argued that the state’s engagement in steering has created a phenomenon of ”state-anchored pluralism.”

Debates have also surfaced on the utility of private-public partnerships and the ability of the private sector to not only serve as the ”eyes and ears” of the public police but to formally supplement policing, thereby serving as a source of public goods. Opponents of this idea raise issues related to the nature of private policing as profit oriented, unaccountable to the general public, and relatively unregulated, as well as constitutional and practical concerns that have arisen as the further blurring of private and public policing duties has taken place.

The emergence of PMCs has also become a subject of contention. A variety of issues have been raised, for instance, the difficulties of regulating and holding PMCs accountable, particularly in foreign contexts, and the ideological problems associated with using for-profit agencies in warfare. Another contentious issue has been the use of PMCs by governments as a means of conducting foreign policy by proxy (Smith 2002).

Regulating Private Security

Regulation of the private security industry in the United States has also been an issue of debate as policy makers and courts have attempted through the years to regulate the industry, without much success. Currently, the legal framework regulating private policing is a mix of state and local regulations, common law, case law, and state tort law, with very little regulation in terms of federal statutes (Joh 2004; Sklansky 1999). Criminal law doctrines of assault, trespass, and false imprisonment do apply to the private sector, but criminal procedural law has relatively little effect on the private sector (Sklansky 1999). According to the Hallcrest reports, a few states do not have regulatory legislation in place at all, whereas other states have only a few regulatory mechanisms in place.

Whereas the public police are regulated through the Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Amendments, private security personnel are usually exempted from these restrictions due to their private nature. For instance, in United States v. Lima, a woman suspected of shoplifting in a department store was searched by a plainclothes store detective. Although the trial judge suppressed the stolen item, the District of Columbia Court of Appeals reversed the decision citing that the Fourth Amendment did not apply to ”mere employees performing security duties” (Sklansky 1999). Private security personnel are also usually exempt from having to give the Miranda warning requiring that a suspect be informed of the right to remain silent and the right to legal counsel. For instance, in United States v. Antonelli a dockworker was stopped in his car by a security guard who then requested that the trunk of the car be opened. Stolen items were found in the trunk and the dockworker made incriminating statements to the security guard. When he attempted to have these statements suppressed due to the guard not informing him of his Miranda rights, the motion was denied. This decision was based on the fact that the Miranda rules only apply to public law enforcement and that the security guard ”had no pertinent official . . . connection with any public law enforcement agency” (Sklansky 1999). The exemption of private security personnel from constitutional restrictions has opened the door for the abuse of suspects’ rights; evidence that would ordinarily be considered illegal if obtained by a state police official may be accepted in court if obtained by a private security official.

In terms of self-regulation, the private security industry does not have a national security industry such as the British Security Industry Association (BSIA), even though it was suggested in Hallcrest Report II that the American industry follow the U.K. example (Joh 2004). However, in 2003 the American Society for Industrial Security (ASIS), which is one of America’s largest private security associations, produced a set of minimum guidelines for the selection of private security personnel for use by legislators (Joh 2004).

International debates have identified the difficulty—legally, practically, and otherwise—of regulating and holding accountable transnational private security corporations, especially PMCs (Singer 2005).

Future Prospects

The lack of regulation of private policing in the United States may be a factor preventing the systematic creation of partnerships between the two sectors.

However, in contrast the ”new” global terrorist threat may be propelling the state to a redefinition of the role of state security in a global context. For instance, in October 2001 an executive order initiated by President George W. Bush established the Office of Homeland Security in response to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The legislation contains provisions encouraging the cooperation of federal, state, local, and private entities to secure facilities from the terrorist threat (Pastor 2003). This may be a sign of things to come—the formalization of public-private partnerships—not only domestically but at a transnational level. Nations throughout the world are grappling with global threats to their internal securities with the private sector becoming a tangible option in the face of budget cuts, streamlining of public services, and the growing inability of the state to guarantee the provision of internal security.

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