Plans to privatise the police brings to mind those dystopian visions of the future. But could it be any more ghastly than now?
One of the foremost things movies warn you about the future is that it is a place where private corporations will handle policing. And from RoboCop to District 9 and beyond, hilarity tends not to ensue. As far as horrifyingly dystopian visions of tomorrow go, privatised law enforcement probably slots in between the future as a mass-spectator death game, and the future as somewhere Wesley Snipes holds a position of authority.
In real life, Snipes is currently residing in a Pennsylvania jail – he had one of those crusading accountants who insist that income tax is theoretically not payable – but it’s looking considerably less reassuring on the private policing front. Some might have assumed the recent revelation that the government was considering privatising aspects of policing, including investigation and detention, to be late-capitalist societal satire. Even more will suspect an unseen joker’s hand with the story’s newest twist: a Pentagon contractor that built Guantánamo Bay has now been shortlisted to run key policing services in Surrey and the West Midlands. Something to be aware of if you’re driving through Dudley with a defective rear light.
Until 2007, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) was the contracting and construction arm of a little outfit called Halliburton – and on that basis, I suppose we were warned. When dozens of firms registered interest in bidding for the £1.5bn contract, the police authorities in question declined to be more specific, but assured the public it included “many household names”, which presumably depends on your household. There will be those for whom no breakfast table conversation is complete without reference to Dick Cheney’s former firm; while there will be others who imagined that Simon Cowell would have put in a tender. (Frankly, I’m surprised if the government hasn’t begged the X Factor supremo to do so. Given that successive prime ministers have imagined his secret magic formula as the answer to everything from social justice to getting them re-elected, I fully expected Cowell to be running at least part of the health service by now.)
As for KBR’s CV highlights, many would not deem the Cuban Butlins their greatest hit, perhaps preferring to focus on it being cited for “negligent homicide” for faulty wiring it installed in Iraqi military bases, which somehow has not precluded it being awarded further multimillion-dollar electrical contracts. Still, coupled with the Gitmo connection, it certainly suggests it’s a market leader in the electrodes game.
Needless to say, that isn’t the credential KBR is emphasising in its bid to make the Black Country a better place. “Our objective in the privatisation of the police force is to get more police doing actual police work,” it insists, “while KBR brings operational efficiencies to the back office with the objective of achieving an overall lower cost of service while improving service levels.” How altruistic it does sound, given that its actual objective is to create value for its shareholders.
In the meantime, what a dilemma the entire scheme is for those of us whose lot in life is to be policed. On the one hand, a combination of Hollywood-schooled gut instinct and any number of real-life ongoing corruption investigations into international government contracting tells you that allowing private firms to deprive citizens of their liberty or manage high-risk offenders is a recipe for even more ghastly policing than that with which we are currently saddled. Furthermore, for all that a regulatory body – call it Ofcop – would be set up to handle inevitable awkwardnesses such as suspects dying in the custody of private firms, the policy joins the NHS reforms as an example of radical programmes upon which the electorate has been deemed too irrelevant to be given the chance to vote.
On the other hand, though, this is Britain’s wretched police that we are talking about. It is a measure of the depths to which their legitimacy has sunk that there will be plenty of people wondering how much worse private contractors could actually be. The Police Federation is really the last of the big bad unions, with its ferociously tin-eared defence of absurdly anachronistic cushy working practices and annual sick leave levels that dwarf the national average. A few years ago, forces were set a target of 15% reduction in overtime, on the basis that officer numbers had increased. They instead increased the overtime bill by 29%.
The coppers’ union has traditionally combined this private chiselling with a public face best described as difficult to warm to. “Are you a mason?” I once inquired of its erstwhile chairman. “I don’t know,” came the mulish reply. (I think he turned out to be a provincial high sword bearer, if the Grand Lodge’s opaque hierarchy means anything to you). Asked on another occasion to extend his sympathy to the families of the then 1,000 people who had died in police custody in the past three decades without a single criminal conviction, he declared: “Any accident is tragic. A lot of people die in car accidents. Both are tragic.”
This week, the federation was once again mistaking itself for a lovable troupe of national treasures, declaring: “We believe simply that if you call a cop, you should get a cop,” and attempting to decry the merest whiff of commercial encroachment on their patch. Incidentally, perhaps a body currently chuntering about the inimitable nature of all coppers’ work might care to ask why so many of its members are willing to buddy up with commercial TV companies, inviting endless shows such as Police, Camera, Action! and Police Interceptors along on daring sorties to catch speeding hatchbacks and petty breachers of the peace. Perhaps they tell themselves it’s something to do with the battle for hearts and minds, despite overwhelming evidence that police legitimacy has become dangerously threatened for reasons a primetime Channel 5 slot is unlikely to solve.
For rather too many of the public whose servants they claim to be, the Police Federation is the shameless defender of a world where suspects regularly kick themselves down the nick stairs and adversarial tactics are the first resort. Between a cop and a hard place, though, I think I’d just about take the cop. In the corporate spawn of Halliburton, the police might just have found the entity to throw them into sympathetic relief.