The Police, The Law, and Private Enterprise

I wrote a few days ago about The Service Economy and described it as The Disservice Economy, because it allows so many opportunities to smartarse service providers to ‘skim-off’ superfluous fees from its clients for provision to them of services which are utterly redundant.

An example among many I offered is the online mediating agency which stands between say on the one hand an official regulator who charges for its services to the public, and on the other those who are unlucky enough not to find the regulator’s site itself, but instead the mediator’s site, in their browser’s top search results.

I also wrote about how so many industries have in recent years placed hurdles in the shape of such things as certificates of competence in basic training etc (e.g. Health and Safety, Building Site Safety, Criminal Background Checks etc) which the job applicant has to have training in, and/or to obtain; but always to pay for, before he is able to apply with any hope of success for a job within these industries.

This practice is now very widespread across employers in Britain.

Thus it is that an onus has shifted over the past 20 or 30 years.  Before this present time employers were almost unanimous in providing this kind of induction training and vetting of their personnel, as part of a general introduction of new employees into their organisations.  There were, I believe, tax breaks for employers who gave such training and help to incoming and developing staff.  Many, and all decent employers, took advantage of these incentives and trained up their own people.

Nowadays, of course, the trend is shifting, has shifted considerably; so that, in particular, young persons looking for work are saddled with overheads even before they are eligible to apply for work and to earn income to sustain such overheads.  They have little money and yet are called upon, constrained even, to do this course, and run that check, before they are able to go out and seek work in the sector of industry they choose.

The largest elephant in the room in this respect is of course the political wheeze of providing undergraduate student loans by government, which loans act to saddle new graduates with debts of £1000’s for them to pay off, normally at a time in their lives when they are seeking to marry, to buy a house and to start a family. No blue sky thinking by any means; but a nice ‘get out of jail free’ card for government accountability to its citizens.

Now this shift of onus; away from government, in the way of curtailing help with money for tertiary education students, and away from employers, in the way of them no longer paying for basic training and checks; passing much of all this cost onto the individuals seeking these education and employment; this shift represents a simple, obvious, and somewhat mean and low way of the employers and government seeking to save on expenditure, and for them to do so by them  passing the expense for these services onto individuals within joe public. I contend that in the same way our British Police Service is also facilitating, de facto if not de jure, the way for private and usually service industries to spring up and to charge for services once provided by The UK Police Service in its day to day routine duties.

There is at least an (ideological) argument for shifting fees for qualifications for jobs onto the seekers of jobs (although the way this is being done now affects untowardly and particularly hardly the young seeking to begin in life; and this is onerous and unjustifiable).  But this shift of duties from the public sector Police Service to private sector companies I will argue here has caused considerable dereliction of due conscience, and our government itself has been wrong and stupid to have started and to have continued to date in these trends.  And again I say, it is done to save on public costs, and to ‘reduce the size of the public sector’ (this being an ideological catch phrase; but yet a substitute for speaking plainly; which would be to say ‘reducing public services’).

A result, this shift from The Police to private companies of certain public services has meant for the ordinary British citizen, a maze of new prohibitions and curtailments on his/her behaviour, all of which (when often met with mistakenly or unawares) cost a person very dear when s/he falls foul of one.

Recently I wrote to our local Police Commissioner, asking him to consider bringing back certain police duties which have in the past decade ‘fallen by the wayside’; and in a hope that certain proper procedures and laws which are going unenforced, will no longer continue being passed over by our Police.  (I have not received any substantive reply to date).

And this evolution towards a dereliction in ceratin duties of the police is the way in which a signal sent is out to private companies; that, for instance, here is a niche sprung up which a new service industry is able to slot into. In this way private companies are able to charge to supply these needs, which previously were provided for by our police gratis and as part of their duties.

Of course some derelictions which have crept into the police service and enforcing the law are never taken up by the private sector in this way.  Smoking cannabis and not using vehicle indicator signals are two activities one meets daily, hourly, here, and which irritate me a lot. But the items ‘become ‘available’ which are able to be translated fairly readily into ready-cash are hoovered up quickly by the smartarse niche servicer provider guys.

Local shops for instance were once visited by their local policemen quite regularly and as a courtesy call the policemen would ask for any news of developments or problems which fell within their remit. Such visits had more than mere cosmetic value. They gave assurance and a sense of there being a resource available to go to for shopkeepers, when troubles arose.  Shops these days are far less frequently visited by policemen, certainly not regularly, perhaps only when information is needed by them about a local misdemeanour; or when the shop itself has reported a crime. The community links and the subsequent resultant sympathies are lost; gone. Shops express a feeling of being left to fend for themselves security-wise; and are having to fend-off on their own shoplifters and nuisance-callers. Some shops among them, who are a little larger, employ a person to be a ‘store detective’; or at least they add more security (alarms, locks, grilles, etc).

As a result of this situation having arisen; and this is within my own experience, shopkeepers have complained that their premises have been broken into; when their premises are within sight of, 50 yards from, a Police Station.  Such effrontery in intruders is a signal indicator of a parlous state of affairs.

Shops then are being put to additional expense because they feel compelled to add a level of security which once they felt had been provided by the public service.

The lone policeman patrolling ‘a beat’ is a thing long gone. One sees them in pairs patrolling occasionally; or else one policeman with a Community Officer, or else two Community Officers.   For the most part the ‘adrenalin rides’ are their most frequent public displays of an enforcing presence.  I mean by this that police presences are visible only in their vehicles by far and away most of the time. Mostly it’s sirens and speed.

This is commonplace and ancient criticism I am using here concerning ‘adrenaline’.  There’s an urban folk joke about ‘rushing home for his dinner’ satirising police (over)use of their sirens.

I knew a constable who aimed always to shift his shifts to a night or evening or afternoon shift. No morning shifts because ‘the criminals were not up yet’ and so this meant that constables who did morning shifts were commonly buried in paperwork from the havoc of the evening and night before.  This is a true anecdote.

Private security firms have burgeoned in the UK since some forty years back; at which time they were a rarity; and the police served most needs served today by those – usually ex-forces – guards who now find employment in private security.  The pay of a common or garden security guard is pretty basic. Many receive a forces pension to help bear the penury; others just accept that jobs are hard to find when they are thrown on Civvy Street after years in the forces.  But police wages for many affluent years had been rising as more and more resources and money were being pumped into the service in the 90s and noughties. Lately the service has been in throes of anguish about the end of this flood tide of finance. A new entrant constable nonetheless gets a fair whack set against the private guard’s take-home.

There are presently private security arrangements in very many places and business areas; and as a result the police have been able to step back from occupying certain space they once occupied in recent history.

There are parking attendants where once the police took care of parking misdemeanours.  There are shopping mall guards. There are the big store floorwalker store detectives. There are public community officers who are a kind of second rate constable with limited powers and authority.  There are money transfer security guards; at banks and at finance houses.  There is never ever seen nowadays any traffic control done by a policemen or by a special community officer. This used to be very frequent.

The set-up these days of traffic junctions controlled by lights are now fully computerised and automated; but of course when a traffic anomaly occurs which disturbs the regular rhythms of traffic; then these ‘smart’ lights will seek to adjust themselves accordingly; and inevitably make a hash and large tailbacks of queues of traffic. The understanding that Artificial Intelligence has not yet acceded to a level of insight and sagacity as a seasoned personal traffic controller has not been accepted by our City Council.  I suspect that the police no longer hold a remit to step in and control traffic routinely as they used to do in cases of large build-ups of queues.

These are all petty instances; and one might look at any one of them in isolation and justly think; well: so what; little problem.  But the Scots have a proverb: ‘Many a mickle makes a muckle’ which translates as ‘Many a small thing makes a large thing’; and this is my case here in this discursive complaint I am writing.

The question to be asked is: has the loss of these many mickle services from police hands been adequately provided for in compensating take-ups of slack by private companies etc?  Well, you answer that one.

I will make but a single yet crucial distinction between private enterprise doing things and public services doing the same things. In the case of the police there is no potential limitation on the levels or the standards or the timeliness or the appropriateness or the speed or the extent to which they are remitted to go to when doing their jobs to enforce the law and to protect the citizen.  This is very much not the case with private endeavours of a comparable ilk.

Because there are few policemen, or even community officers, seen present at street level walking and just being around; the police have by this move away, given up and consequently have lost their standing as reliable friends and seekers after the solicitude of the ordinary man and woman. The police still have some respect from their publics, in those places where they always were held in respect.  Only this respect has been tempered quite considerably by the simple fact of for the most part no police presences where once they could be depended upon; except in emergencies.

One exception to this are  the traffic police; who lay on spot checks on vehicles and do speed checks and such; which is all very well, and it brings in income in fines etc; but otherwise than this  it seems the humdrum parts of what used to be the policeman’s job on the streets, which were in fact once the very heart and soul of British policing; are now perhaps not quite ‘adrenaline’ enough?  (Maybe this comment is ‘below the belt’?)

Our Police here pass by so many openly acted misdemeanours and this has allowed these misdemeanours to have become commonplace and unexceptional; they are too small and now too prevalent to keep tabs on. The claim is often from the service is that they are undermanned and strapped for resources and for cash. Yet I myself see almost nightly sometimes police in a helicopter above my house circling the sky and checking out my city from the air.  The cost of that helicopter, of its personnel and of keeping it in service in the air etc, would I believe go a good way to solving cash problems for policing were it spent elsewhere in the service.

The counterclaim here is for retaining a helicopter on a basis of need.  Yet whereabouts is there supplied that need which many citizens carry with them to feel more safe at a crossing when walking across a road; or for a shop to have the reassurance and regularity of a courtesy visit once or twice a week by a local policeman whom they are able to call a friend as well?

Our police have been of good service to me and to my family several times in the 25 years since I have lived here. Their bearing and manner has been good and assuring.  They did their jobs to the letter; and in a good degree to the spirit also.

The problems I have raised are not so much with the police per se nor with the police only; the police like us all are responding to a general trend; perhaps not by policy but certainly by sympathies, and so are handling their policing a good deal by handling only crises; and by ‘firefighting’ these, but sadly they seem to have allowed so much that was good and which people appreciated to be let go off.

The monetisable bits of these lost parts have fallen into private hands; whereas the civic and social-fabric bits, those items which were good ingredients in the makings of community and of general senses of well-being; these being of no use to private hands have diminished and so have declined.

One cannot just discard the parts of a maintenance job which don’t require urgent attention.  One does so and one finds more ‘firefighting’ arises to be done, simply because those non-urgent parts were in fact crucial parts of the service; parts which helped greatly to hold the thing together, and in the case of community, the parts which made individuals within it feel they were being considered and were a valued part of things.

These warmer feelings having waned considerably, as the supports which generated them also diminished, the scales have shifted now towards a commonplace taking of greater license in our general behaviours, towards a less generous and considerate society and people; whose conclusion has been that since no police presence is around,  in the ways it used to be, they feel they either need to be more circumspect and so less generous to strangers; or else they feel freer to become those threatening strangers; those whom others are now aware are at greater liberty to offend.

Of course the police are not responsible for all these downward trends in our society and its communities. They are just a part of the problem – just as all the rest of us are. The police chiefs and commissioners and policy makers across the public service are those able to make changes to how public bodies in general do their tasks and to how they follow their vocations.  One does not have to accept as inevitable that ‘this is the modern age and things are different now. That: ‘this is how it is.’  To say so is to say that change for the better is not possible – which is a calumny and a fallacious excuse for inaction.

As for the remiss alternative, of allowing things to go on as they are, I will only say that unlike the oceans, there is no ground, no eventual base, upon which disruption and decline is able to seat itself and so level out.

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