Accountability in Private Policing

Posted: December 5, 2011 by losantonio in Accountability in Private Policing

According to Wikipedia, private policing is a particular model of law enforcement that is increasingly being used by non-governmental entities. These non-governmental entities may own as well as operate such private policing bodies. There are several types of private police; some are geared towards railroad security (such as the Canadian Pacific Railway Police) while some are geared towards corporate, commercial, retail, and property security (such as Intelligarde International and Intercon Security). Private policing actually predates the Industrialization Age. Watchmen, for example, essentially played  the role of police during the 16th century to about the 19th century in Great Britain. They were paid by wealthy individuals or organizations who hired them.

The rise of private policing in Canada took place during the early-to-mid 1990’s (Statistics Canada) and currently private police personnel outnumber public police personnel by about 5 to 1. The reality in this day and age is that policing in Canada is evolving. There’s an ongoing demand for security around the world. And in Canada, it’s no surprise that these demands are essentially blurring the boundaries between public and private policing. Private police may not necessarily uphold the Law to the fullest in ways that the public police do but there is an expectation and they are subject to it nonetheless. Criminologists recognize this phenomenon as the ‘pluralization’ of police. As Burbidge (2005) notes,

The activity of policing encompasses many tasks that, while traditionally associated with the public police, may also be performed by private security: arrests, detentions, investigations, routine foot patrols, fraud investigations and forensic accounting, security surveillance, investigations for insurance, crime prevention consulting, property protection and medical and emergency response.

Deviance can be defined as the violation of culturally reinforced social norms and formal rules. Deviance can be approached or broken down in many different ways; one approach is to break it down into three types: Nonfeasance (failure to perform legal duty), Misfeasance (failure to perform legal duty in a proper way), and Malfeasance (commission of an illegal act). Corruption falls under the umbrella of Deviance and involves deviant, dishonest, improper, unethical, or criminal behaviour by a police officer. According to Punch (2009), policing and corruption go hand-in-hand. Corruption is largely influenced by the nature of police work, police culture and the police organization as a whole. Punch (2009) adds that corruption is found in all countries, in all forces and at every level of the organization at some time. To add, the core elements that fuel corruption are abuse of official power, abuse of trust, and sometimes system failure. Because of its prevalence in the security industry, corruption, and ultimately deviance, can also be found in the world of private policing. Most security providers, either in the public or private sector, have their own standards referred to as official paradigms (formal ideology of an organization) and operational codes (standard operating procedures or ‘the backstage of policing’, or ‘how things really get done’). The actions of public police, if perceived to be deviant, can be reviewed by a panel external to a public police organization. The public have access to “formal channels…to lodge complaints against the police.” (Law Commission of Canada, 2002). It’s important to note that even the accountability structures of public police [police investigating police, RCMP accountability and oversight] are subject to analysis, so what about the private policing sector? How is deviance and corruption addressed? Does the rule of law (i.e. the legal rules governing police powers and practices) apply to private policing? The bottom line is how then can private police be held accountable for their actions?

Accountability plays an important role in the governance of public policing. Unfortunately not much work has been done to address the accountability of private police entities. “Most provincial private security and investigators acts focus on regulating security firms as a business.” (Law Commission of Canada, 2002). Burbidge (2005) qualifies this as “a governance deficit with respect to private policing.” According to him, it only makes sense that the oversight and accountability structures that apply to public police should also apply to private police since private police today are already beginning to function like public police as well as perform many of the same duties that the public police do. Punch (2009) breaks down the accountability of public police into the following: (i) democratic and political accountability, (ii) legal accountability, (iii) internal operational and policy accountability, (iv) managerial accountability, and (v) community accountability. Should the same principles be applied to private police? According to the Law Commission of Canada (2002), some private security executives claim that they are already subject to (i) criminal liability, (ii) industry self-regulation, (iii) labour legislation, (iv) contractual liability, and (v) accountability through the marketplace. This, according to the executives, makes them far more accountable than their public brethren. In either case, these existing accountability structures (for both public and private police) do not accommodate the reality of police networks today.

It’s been suggested by the Law Commission of Canada that law reform should be looked at when considering accountability measures that can be applied to both policing sectors. It’s also very important that such measures or structures be developed with the rule of law and protection of the rights and freedoms of individuals in mind. ‘Professionalization’ of the private security industry has been recommended to ensure that policing is carried out in a democratic way. One form of professionalization that relates to our study of police deviance and accountability is the enforcement of minimum standards for training. It’s argued that this may help improve the quality of private policing. Also, this may give way to the establishment of policing colleges that could be funded by both the public and private sector. This could help in the professionalization process by giving public and private police access to standardized training and education facilities. Another possible solution to governance and/or accountability is to put private policing agencies under the supervision of public police agencies, since private police personnel currently outnumber public police personnel. The main goal of this proposition would be to create a stronger network or partnership between “governmental and non-governmental entities that have important roles in maintaining public peace and security, under one general umbrella.” (Law Commission of Canada, 2002).

Going over some recommended local sources for this post, I found one particular issue interesting mainly due to the sense of reality associated with it particularly because it’s a local (Vancouver) issue and gives us a sense that it’s within our reach. That is, it’s something we can easily relate to. Vancouver’s Pivot Legal Society (2008) got 154 Downtown Eastside residents in 2007 to complete a survey concerning interactions with private security guards in the area. The study revealed a correlation between housing status and the frequency of individuals’ interactions with private security guards (verbal or physical). Pivot’s findings also suggest the growing need for “rigorous monitoring and accountability mechanisms for policing bodies.” Even within the local scope, the pursuit of such goals will be the catalyst we need so that private and public policing can be delivered with justice, equality, efficiency, accountability, and the freedoms and rights of Canadians in mind.

In the UK, governance of private security has been mostly effective because the government is the primary employer of private policing personnel. In Canada however, each province has its own legislation for private policing. According to Burbidge (2005), “the challenge is not to create a private policing governance structure that is parallel to the public policing sector.” The emphasis should be on integrating approaches in police governance outlined by policing functions and powers. An important finding I found was an outline that the Vera Institute of Justice (2002) came up with in terms of effective governing of the private policing sector: Effective governance and accountability of private policing is possible when private policing firms are (a)periodically reviewed by an oversight agency that aggressively seeks public comment on the performance of the firm; (b)subject to civil liability in the courts for the misconduct of their officers; (c)required to provide their officers with training appropriate to the roles they will play; (d)required to document an annual review of each officer’s performance against written standards; (e)required to maintain records of their officers’ movements and activities for occasional external review; and (f)encouraged to participate in professional associations that certify firms’ compliance with industry standards.

As for the future of overall governance of police, the Law Commission of Canada illustrates some controversial or contested points. The Commission’s document ‘In Search of Security: The Roles of Public Police and Private Agencies’ talks about two distinct sides regarding the governance of public and private police. The expansionist side emphasizes on “strategic re-investment in government spending and increased regulation of the private sector.” This assumption is based on the theory that spending on public policing is not doing enough to improve public policing operations or services, so resources are diverted. The state-retrenchment side argues that authority and jurisdiction are placed in the hands of the private sector because of widespread demand for private security and because public police aren’t able to meet the demands of the public anymore. Both approaches to address the governance of policing are too radical, implausible and inadequate.

The ‘theories’ in the above paragraph are just hypothetical proposed solutions that, in reality don’t really fix anything. These theories don’t offer any real sense of a solution because it feeds on us assuming that government authority, resources and public police personnel will be reallocated into the private sector. I’m simply saying in this context that, yes, pluralization of police is on the rise but we can’t assume that the government will readily jump at the opportunity to govern plural (private) policing bodies just because they are having difficulties with maintaining order as well as difficulties with governing public (provincial or federal) policing bodies such as the RCMP. In many ways modernization, urbanization and the increasing demand for property security gave rise to private policing. As Caroll (2004) noted, private security is “often perceived or actually acting as social control agents in quasi-public places, rather than mere guardians of property. Their role has evolved to one of ‘policing and security’. With the ‘policing’ role, comes an expected higher level of standards and accountability.” In my opinion, discussions regarding the governance of private policing are currently flawed because private police “don’t have consistent standards relating to hiring, screening, training, equipment and uniforms, use of force, response options, statutory authority and service delivery,” Caroll (2004). Clearly, developing professional standards within the private security industry and improving them (i.e. professionalization) should be the first thing to tackle if we really want to initiate proper accountability structures for private policing bodies with some help from the government as well as community input.

Why should we care about accountability in private policing? First, the private security industry doesn’t have a public complaints process similar to the public police. Also, other options for regulation should be available (i.e. public police policing the private police or creation of policing boards as in the UK). Second, very little official data such as the size of the industry itself (i.e. the number of employees and establishments, the amount of revenue generated, expenses) is available to policy makers and analysts when it comes to the private security industry. Therefore, we (or rather, the government) is/are unable to develop a proper framework for oversight and accountability mechanisms directed towards private policing. This should not hinder us from pursuing such mechanisms; rather, it should be the driving force behind achieving such a goal. This can only be done with some help from the government with professionalization set as the first and foremost step. Third, as more and more private security firms begin to offer services in domains previously exclusive to public police, more and more clients expect their interests to be policed rather than the public’s safety within the community. “Without effective external oversight, the safety of the public may be compromised.” Law Commission of Canada (2002).

There are also a number of key issues arising pertaining to deviance and accountability of private police. Burbidge argues that because of the expansion in both the size and diversity of private policing in Canada, it will be challenging and time-consuming to regulate the police (public and private) as a whole. Accountability structures for public and private police, on their own, may not be satisfying local communities as they need to. Also, these existing accountability mechanisms for public and private police may not reflect the new age in policing in Canada. Burbidge stresses that efforts be made to regulate policing practices instead. This is just my opinion, but going down that path seems very difficult and even more labour-ridden to the point that it may not seem highly realistic at all. For one, the effectiveness of accountability mechanisms for public police has become questionable. Some argue that police are treated unfairly by an inefficient oversight process. Some citizen groups say that when accountability measures are put in motion, they prove to be ineffective. Also, it’s argued that not all accountability mechanisms across Canada are the same. In terms of the private sector, as mentioned earlier there is very little data known for us to know what should be done to deliver proper accountability measures. With that said, how then can we actually regulate what the police (public and private) do?

Going back to the introduction section, public policing activities are increasingly being performed by private police as well. So, the better route to take in developing an appropriate accountability or oversight mechanism would be one that considers “broader forms of regulation that encompass the policing sector as a whole.” Law Commission of Canada (2002). The propositions that fall under this category are policing boards and public police as regulators of private police. These new regulatory models are described in pages 51-53 of the Commission’s article In Search of Security: The Roles of Public Police and Private Agencies.

Earlier I mentioned that corruption, and ultimately deviance, can also be found in the world of private policing. However, deviance within the private security industry may not come in the same forms as those found in the public sector. Private security firms come in many ‘sizes’. Some come in the form of multinational corporations, while others are smaller, specialized establishments. It’s not hard to see what levels of deviance may flourish corresponding to the ‘sizes’ of these firms. The competitiveness within this industry itself may tempt certain firms to ‘cheat’ their way into the hands of a potential client or even ruin other firms with white-collar or corporate forms of deviance. Or, in a smaller scope, deviance can simply come in the form of a security guard supposedly arresting a homeless person for “assault by trespass”, Pivot Legal Society (2011). These instances of assaults against citizens are forms of deviance that can also found within public policing. It may be the only similar type of deviance between the two policing sectors. On a different note, if labour legislation in the private security industry protected potential victims from the abuse of power, it would be similar (to a degree) with the public police’s internal operational and policy accountability process.

Some argue that legislation should be made to clearly specify what private police organizations can and cannot do while others suggest governance legislation that will apply to both public and private police organizations. It will take a significant amount of time, effort, and resources to tackle the governance of the new era of policing Canada is currently undergoing. It’s still widely assumed that the public police are the primary security service providers, but there is an ever-growing overlap with the private policing sector. It’s clear that governance structures need to be modified to ensure that policing is delivered in accordance with the Charter of Rights, democratic values of justice, equality, accountability and efficiency.

Burbidge, S. (2005). The Governance Deficit: Reflections on the Future of Public and Private Policing in Canada. Canadian Journal of Criminology & Criminal Justice, 47(1), 63-86.

Caroll, E. (2004). The blurring of Public Police and Private Agencies. Policing and Security Counselling Services.

Law Commission of Canada (2002). In Search of Security: The Roles of Public Police and Private Agencies.

Pivot Legal Society (2011). Harbour Centre and Fusion Security face more lawsuits. retrieved November 16, 2001, from Pivot Legal Society:

Pivot Legal Society (2011). Private Security Brutality Sparks Legal Action. Retrieved October 20, 2011, from Pivot Legal Society:

Pivot Legal Society (2008). Security Before Justice. Retrieved October 20, 2011, from Pivot Legal Society:

Punch, M. (2009). Police Corruption: Deviance, Accountability and Reform in Policing.  Portland (Oregon).


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