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Policing in the 21st century: facing up to the challenges of the privatisation of policing

By Duncan Kerr - posted Friday, 15 June 2001

In 1999 an Australian Institute of Criminology publication concluded that, "The late twentieth century is a period of profound change in modern police history, as important as the deployment of the Bobby on the streets of London in 1829."

This statement holds true for the early 21st century. Today’s society is going through a change as, if not more, radical than the Industrial Revolution, which is credited with causing the social conditions which led Jeremy Bentham to call for the establishment of a force of peace officers to prevent crime – the call which was answered by Sir Robert Peel when he established the London Metropolitan Police Force in 1829.

Globalisation, information technology, the growing distance between the rich and the poor, small government, blind adherence to economic rationalism and the power of the market, are all having a profound impact on the institutions which underpin that society, and the way in which services, which we have traditionally viewed as public goods, are delivered.


It is within this context of world-wide societal change, that the profound change in modern policing history, which the Institute of Criminology referred to, is occurring. The change is the ‘privatisation of policing’ and there are some potential problems and policy challenges associated with the issue.

One of the trends that is of great concern is the emergence in Australia of ‘gated communities’ – fenced-off communities where residents have private roads, private communal space, and private security.

Gated communities are just one aspect of the ‘privatisation of policing’ phenomenon. I have deliberately used the phrase ‘privatisation of policing’, because what we are beginning to experience is broader than the private provision of security, or protection services.

We have been concerned in Australia for some time about the proliferation of private security agencies but until now debate has focussed only on licensing and regulating the agencies. We need to be aware of and bring into public consciousness and public policy debate the broadening of private provision of security into the privatisation of policing.

I am referring to "policing" in the same way as Jeremy Bentham did – as all the functions which make up domestic peace keeping. The actual list of functions would be enormous, but as an indication, it would include law enforcement, security patrols, crime prevention, criminal investigations, the imposition of fines, dispute resolution and making arrests.

Academics, particularly in the US and the UK, have been describing the phenomenon of private policing for over a decade now. In the early 1990s, English criminologists, lead by Les Johnston, were saying that society needed to reassess the traditional concept of policing as an activity carried out exclusively by public personnel. In support, Johnston pointed to reality: in most countries, including Australia, the police are not the only, nor in many cases the prominent, provider of security to the community.


It is not merely the number of private security agencies that gives rise for concern. The larger concern is the functions in which they are involved and the effect which this is having and could have on public policing and the services which are available and delivered to the community.

On the 22 of March this year the Sydney Morning Herald carried the bold headline: "Private crime-busters patrol the street". According to the article, a group of 20 Sydney hoteliers and retailers, led by the Waldorf Apartments development, have joined together to form the Chippendale Crime Control Committee. The Committee has hired a private security firm to carry out foot patrols between 4pm and 4am weekdays, and 24 hours on weekends. Residents have been offered the service for free.

Why? This is an area which has seen residential investment – it has been transformed into an area with trendy apartments. The Waldorf Apartments management sees heroin dealing as to blame for house break-ins, bag snatches and muggings in the area. And these activities are threatening the ability of the Waldorf to attract guests. They want to see their residents protected.

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This is an edited version of a speech given to the Police Federation Of Australia (South Australia) on April 30 2001.

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About the Author

Hon. Duncan Kerr is Federal member for Denison (Tas) and was Federal Attorney General and Minister for Justice in the Keating government. He is author of Elect the Ambassador: Building Democracy in a Globalised World.

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