Leading Article: Softly, softly for private police

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The Independent Online
THE FUSS caused by a London council's proposal to set up a municipal police force for its housing estates is a measure of British sensitivities both to crime and civil liberties. Wandsworth Council's plan goes little further than an existing scheme in south Durham, where Sedgefield District Council employs a private force of 18 officers to protect a population of 90,000. But it has infuriated the police establishment, and put once more into question the police monopoly over law and order.

The rationale behind initiatives such as Wandsworth's is easy to discern: many citizens want a higher degree of protection from crime - particularly from violence, vandalism and attacks on property - than the prodigious sums of taxpayers' money already spent on policing can deliver.

In Sherlock Holmes's days, a constable could blow on his whistle and always expect a fellow officer to be within earshot. Britain might easily adopt the current Japanese system of police boxes every few hundred yards; but to do so would be prohibitively expensive, and would raise civil liberties concerns.

The Wandsworth plan should set one worry to rest. The call for extra security does not come only from the rich, thus raising the spectre of two-tier law and order. Since vandalism is rife in poor areas and particularly on public housing estates, local authorities have been among the first to judge extra security a good use of their budgets. The pilot scheme now in operation in Islington was proposed by a Labour politician.

Policing is different from other state functions, where maladministration can easily be corrected afterwards. The public needs to know that police officers are trustworthy and properly trained. For all the deficiencies of the present system - which range from corruption to ineffective oversight and unsatisfactory handling of complaints - there will inevitably be concern that members of private companies would be less disciplined.

This concern may be unjustified. In spite of the flood of negative publicity, the private companies that have won contracts to run prisons and to carry prisoners to and from court have not performed measurably worse than their public-sector counterparts. But British conservatism being what it is, only a brave Home Secretary would act to make private policing easier.

The fact is that any local council or other private body is free to set up a police force tomorrow without Home Office permission. The members of such a force would not be allowed to carry weapons, formally arrest suspects, issue cautions, take fingerprints or ask for names and addresses. But they would have the powers of arrest that are already the right of every citizen. They could patrol in vans, wear uniforms and carry radios. They could even apprehend criminals they catch in flagrante, using reasonable force to arrest them and take them to the police. Experience suggests that there are satisfactory ways of allowing a broader range of people to keep the peace on our behalf; but change is best made step by step.