Who is keeping us safe? The uncertainty of public-private policing partnerships

by Tessa Géraldine Diphoorn

In many parts of the world your actions are more likely to be controlled by private security officers than state police. Airports, shopping malls, banks, hospitals, and a range of other public and private facilities are increasingly protected by security guards working for profit-making firms. In 2011, the Small Arms Survey estimated the private security industry had a global value of USD 100-165 billion per year.

Violent episodes such as the 2007 Nisour Square Massacre in Baghdad have shone a media spotlight on companies like Blackwater and Executive Outcomes that provide these private military services. In comparison, less well-trained domestic security officers receive little attention. Yet they too have an equally tremendous impact on citizens’ daily lives, particularly in countries where private security officers outweigh the police. In South Africa, there are three guards to every state police officer, while in Canada, there are two.

But these figures exclude the more informal security providers that play a pivotal role in the lives of citizens across the globe. The contemporary security landscape is pluralized, composed of citizen patrols, gangs, neighborhood watches, and vigilante groups. This global ‘security assemblage’ includes various actors, interactions, objects, and practices.

So how do state police officers, both collectively and individually, perceive these other security providers? Outright hostility is common. Private security companies are frequently disregarded as serious crime partners - and their security guards often operate in isolation. Yet in Kenya and South Africa where my research is focused, patrols and crime operations are regularly executed together and crime information is exchanged through unified efforts between public and private security forces.

The backdrop to these partnerships is a landscape where ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces are entangled - and where the growth of so-called ‘quasi-public’ spaces has blurred a clear dividing line. Hospitals, universities, and shopping centers are ostensibly public and yet are often owned and operated by commercial interests. In these quasi-public spaces, individuals that are defined as ‘undesirable’ or ‘untrustworthy’ are frequently denied access. Research in countries including South Africa and the United States shows that ‘undesirability’ is a slippery concept -  and determining the rules of access to quasi-public spaces can quickly shift into racial profiling.

But a less-explored consequence of these quasi-public spaces is the uncertainty that arises among citizens about who is actually protecting them, and what the goals and rights of those actors are. This was palpable during my research in South Africa where many citizens often mistook private security vehicles to be the state police. The fact that private security vehicles - sometimes purposely - look very similar to state police vehicles does not make matters easier, as can be seen in the following photo.

Identifying private security guards as police officers is not simply an error of categorization. Ambiguity often leads to false expectations of one’s rights and duties. Although private security offices do not possess the same legal authority as state police, citizens often believe that they are the same, and expect officers to act accordingly, such as driving through red traffic lights and bringing suspects to the police station. During my research, I witnessed numerous cases where these false expectations resulted in hostile encounters between clients, security officers, suspects, police officers, and ordinary citizens.

In Kenya, a formalized policing partnership between several private security companies and the Diplomatic Police Unit (DPU) -  a specific police unit dedicated at serving the large diplomatic community in Nairobi - result in similar false expectations and ambiguities. Joint patrols and monthly crime meetings between public and private officers form the core of this partnership. Police officers often join private security officers in their company vehicles to patrol specific geographic areas. This partnership act as a direct exchange of capacity and information. In Kenya, private security officers are not allowed to carry firearms. Partnerships allow private security companies to provide the vehicles while police officers in turn provide the ‘armed’ security. Many companies shrewdly use this ‘police presence’ as a marketing strategy to let their clients know that they have armed backing.

This marketing strategy often works. But it has also constructed a false expectation of security officers who are armed. Some clients and inhabitants of patrol areas believe that they are paying for armed security officers - and feel cheated when armed personnel do not arrive on call. Disappointment about unarmed security comes to influence the demands that people make on state police officers and what they believe, as citizens, that they are entitled to.

Public-private policing partnerships are often hailed as an innovative example of collaboration between different security providers, and as a means of effectively fighting crime. But they can also yield uncertainty about who is responsible for security - resulting in a serious mismatch between what is expected of security providers and what can actually be delivered. In our contemporary reality pervaded by (in)security and public-private partnerships, these ambiguous distinctions between ‘public’ and ‘private’ policing are, in many cases, a cause for concern.

About the author

You May Also Like