Megan O’Neill: “An increase in the role of private security is extremely problematic”

Dr Megan O’Neill is a Reader in Human Geography at the University of Dundee, Scotland and an Associate Director of the Scottish Institute for Policing Research (SIPR). Her work focuses on aspects of police culture, community policing, public sector pluralisation in policing, private policing and surveillance practices of the state. She has published two books, Policing Football (2005, Palgrave) and Police Community Support Officers (2019, Oxford University Press). She has published numerous research articles in journals such as Policing and Society, The European Journal of Criminology, Theoretical Criminology, Criminology and Criminal Justice, and The British Journal of Criminology.

1.- There are those who propose the dissolution of the police. Do you think this is a reasonable and possible proposal?

While I can understand the logic behind this argument to dissolve the police, I do not agree that this is the best way forward. I would argue instead for a more integrated approach to solving social problems among the public sector services (and also including some relevant private sector and third sector organisations). Reducing the way in which the various services operate as silos from each other and moving towards a system instead of integrated practice and budgeting, would, I feel, make for a better response to crime and disorder. Many of the biggest challenges seen in policing are not within the gift of the police to solve on their own, but they are an important partner in this process. This would therefore require additional funding for the police (and the other agencies), not less, to set up these systems and methods of integration and communication. It would also require significant organisational change for all the agencies involved. For example, it could no longer be the case that the police are the only 24-hour response organisation.

2.- In case of dissolution of police organisations, could other actors or bodies take over the functions of the police?

I do not agree that other agencies could take over the work of the police. Theirs is a particular skill set that for certain events or incidents is absolutely necessary. They also have the extensive experience and the cultural standing to play very important roles in more integrated work with other services. For me it is a case of finding a better way to integrate the various services to prevent crime, disorder and social problems. This would of course require significant organisational change for all those involved, the police included. This will take a long time to achieve and need to be communicated carefully and effectively to all staff. There would be concerns about change, but if officers feel they have a voice in this process and can be listened to change is indeed possible. Integration on this scale would require the firm commitment of all the agencies involved or else it would not be successful.

3.- In the event of a decrease in the role of the police, there could be an increase in private security. Would it not be problematic for many citizens who would not be able to afford it?

An increase in the role of private security is extremely problematic. Private organisations have as their core focus the achievement of profit. All other concerns are secondary to this. There are many researchers who have studied the work of the private sector in various aspects of criminal justice services (such as policing, prisons and probation) and have found multiple failures and problematic behaviour. This is not to say that public sector policing is always perfect, far from it. But as a body that is accountable to the state or to the people it serves, public policing has an inherent duty of care that the private sector will never be able to match. And all this is an issue even before we consider the question of who would pay for the private sector services and if this would result in a stratification of the security that the public can expect. It is, in my view, morally corrupt to rely on the private sector to provide security for the public at large. However, as mentioned above the private sector can be an important partner in the wider integrated service provision I suggest. But they would be a minor partner, compared to those of the public sector.

4.- What should be the role of citizens in an alternative security management model? What should your role be and what should be the limits of your intervention?

The general public would of course have a role to play in the integrated model I propose. Members of the public are at the centre of this in that all services should be working together to establish what are the root causes of crime, disorder or social problems in a community and work to address those causes. Ultimately, this will only be fully successful with the cooperation of the pubic. However, we should not put the public in a position where they must take an active role in their own security provision, beyond the basics of locking doors, keeping passwords secure, etc. Many people do not have the resources or the capacity to be active players in this work and should not be expected to do so. In terms of academic researchers, we will have an important role in this system in terms of bringing to the fore the best evidence available on what works in which situations and to assess and evaluate new initiatives as they are enacted.


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