The Ethical Concerns Surrounding the Commodification of Security

Posted: March 27, 2013 by urbanhermit1 in Accountability in Private Policing

While the private security sector is not a new phenomenon, there has been rapid and substantial growth of the industry in recent years. Private security encompasses a number of various aspects of public order, crime prevention, and investigation. The private sector has experienced (likely the most significant) growth in systems technology development, however, private security personnel are what is most often equated with the term private security.

There is a tendency to conceptualise public and private security as two separate and largely divorces entities; however this view is not reflective of the reality of policing. Private security personnel outnumber public police officers worldwide (in British Columbia the ratio is approximately 2:1) and are retained by both private individuals as well as government bodies. With the expansion of the private security industry, and the blurred lines of the private and public sectors, there are a number of societal and political consequences to consider. Jelle van Buuren (2010) brings awareness to a number of the ethical concerns which have arisen from the concept of security as a commodity.

A key theme Buuren identifies is that of inclusion-exclusion. With security being viewed as a commodity, an industrial market approach is being taken – with a focus on maximising profits. Capitalising on security appears to be a far cry from the perception of security as a public good, and opens the door for a stratified level of distribution. Allocating security on the basis of generating the greatest profit is worrisome as those on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, who are already marginalised, are likely to become even more so as they do not possess the means to ensure the same level of security as the more affluent.

This distribution by market rather than need was apparent during a study, conducted by Pivot Legal Society, regarding the impacts of private security on marginalised residents in Vancouver during 2007. The report as well as the recommendations can be accessed here. The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA) is publicly funded through property-tax and is managed by a non-profit group of property owners who are active in promoting business, tourism, safety, and street beautification in their business district. The improvement of business districts includes dispersing the considerable homeless and under-housed residents of Vancouver. The interests of the elite, who are able to buy security, are recognised with the dispersal of the homeless population –  those thought to be unsightly and contributing factor to the success of establishments in the district. Those of low socio-economic status are effectively barred entry/access to certain areas, which limits their participation to some degree in society, on the basis of presumed undesirable behaviour.

A listing of Business Improvement Areas (BIA) within the city of Vancouver, as well as Council reports detailing BIA budgets, can be accessed here.

During the study conducted by Pivot Legal it was found that homeless and under-housed people not only had more frequent interactions with private security personnel, but that these interactions were often problematic. As the lines of public and private policing have become increasingly blurred it appears that private security personnel are uncertain as to their limitations of power, and are routinely overstepping their authority. This is problematic as those who are most often in contact with private personnel are those who are most marginalised and who lack the resources to complain about/challenge such abuses of power.

Traditional mechanisms of oversight and accountability are not seen within the private security sector, which makes the complaints process even more challenging in instances of misconduct. No over-arching body exists overseeing all private security corporations nationally, let alone on a provincial level. As disciplinary action occurs in-house, one must make a complaint with the specific company the security agent is employed by.

Pivot Legal found during the course of their study that a number of those living in the Downtown Eastside were unaware of their rights surrounding private security – what exactly was within the scope of private policing powers. Many were unaware that their rights were being infringed upon, and those who did recognise the overstepping of authority were unsure as to how to go about making a complaint.

Van Buuren, J. (2010). “Private Security Ethics: Reintroducing Public Values”, in M. den Boer & E. Kolthoff (eds) Ethics and Security. The Hague: Eleven International Publishing, pp. 165-187.

  1. Mike Larsen says:

    Good post. Thanks for linking to the DVBIA resources.
    Do you agree with PIVOT’s recommendations regarding private security accountability?

    Can you think of a complaints-based accountability structure that would be fair and accessible for persons (particularly homeless or street-involved persons) living in the Downtown Eastside? In my experience, even the best complaints processes are sufficiently bureaucratic and uninviting that many persons feel unable to use them. Perhaps the solution is to invest in legal aid clinics with mandates to facilitate the process. What do you think?

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