Time for competition in police services?

The police might think it important to arrest those who use force to defend their property, or to enforce motoring laws such as speed limits, or to offer counselling to crime victims, but these are rated the least important priorities by the general public, according to the Adam Smith Institute’s MORI poll, published as The Wrong Package.


What the public want the police to do is:

* Target criminal gangs and organized crime * Tackle muggings and street crime * Deter crime by being visible on the streets * Prevent burglary & recover stolen property

Lowest priority, rated so by 41 percent, is arresting those who defend their property with force. Second lowest (32 percent) is enforcing laws against motorists. Only 12 percent think this is important. Even building good relations with ethnic minority communities has a low priority. By 22 percent to 12 percent, people rate it among the least, rather than the most, important activities. People want the police to concentrate on ‘hard’ crime first, ‘to have a crime agenda rather than a social agenda.’

So why are the police so non-responsive to their customers? Because there is no competitive pressure for them to be otherwise. Policing is a monopoly: and worse, a state-run monopoly. So there has been no systematic incentive to keep costs under control and performance maximized. And not just in front-line performance, but throughout the sector. The Audit Commission showed how services such as transport, communications and training varied markedly in cost and quality between different parts of the country. But in the absence of real consumer sovereignty, this bad resource management was never extinguished.

The possibility of introducing competitive pressures exists, but is fiercely resisted by much of the police service. There has been a steady increase in private security firms, often by owners of homes and businesses who believe they can no longer get an adequate service from the police. There are neighbourhood patrol schemes in villages and estates. Local authorities themselves, the notional employers of police forces, use their own private-sector security guards in housing estates, libraries, shopping centres and offices.

Across the globe, there are many public-private security partnerships. In Switzerland, private-sector security guards provide back-up to police services. In the United States, alarm calls may be handled by private companies who check the reports and call in police only if necessary. On-street parking is commonly managed by private firms. US police forces contract-out routine functions such as patrolling property, while private-sector ‘police assistants’ take pressure off expensive full-time officers. Prisoner custody is contracted out in parts of the UK and in many places elsewhere. In some places, local authorities even put their entire policing function out to tender.

The police now work with Neighbourhood Watch groups, but only after initial resistance. Monopolies cannot admit that they are failing and need help from others. The same resistance is now seen against other self-help groups, such as New-York-style ‘guardian angels’ on buses and underground trains. Other methods to keep out the competition included denying access to criminal records to private security firms wishing to check the probity of potential employees.

The first reform in the UK must be genuine decentralization, instead of police budgets and targets being controlled by the Home Office. Because Chief Constables are closer to the needs of their local community, they are probably in a better position to judge how to spend money and deploy personnel than officials in Whitehall. They should have budgetary and staffing control – including the ability to hire in private services.

Civilianization can be extended too. The idea is to preserve expensive, highly-trained police officers only for the tasks that really need them, and use civilians for other functions. Instead of police officers laboriously writing out crime reports, for example, much of this work can be delegated to specialist assistants, using newer technology.

Another key principle is the user-pays principle. At present, all kinds of local services, including policing, are bound up in county budgets. But in various placed in the world, responsibility for road-maintenance, street lighting, refuse collection, and security, has been devolved to much smaller units run by local resident associations. When users are paying more directly, providers need to be more aware of their needs and willing to serve them.