THE BUSINESS OF CRIME: There Are Now Twice as Many Private Security Guards in the UK as 10 Years Ago

Management Today, November 12, 2002 | Go to article overview

THE BUSINESS OF CRIME: There Are Now Twice as Many Private Security Guards in the UK as 10 Years Ago


Jails have been privatised, and even police forces are hiring outside help. The jury may be out on the social effects of all this, but there's no doubt that the security industry has captured a lucrative market. Stephen Cook reports.

When Martin Richards got back to his detached house in Hadley Wood late on a winter evening, three masked men were waiting for him in the drive. They grabbed him in an armlock, forced him to open the door, and put him and his family through 10 minutes of terror that they'll never forget. Nine months later, they're still recovering from the trauma.

In our increasingly lawless society, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of us who can relate similar stories of violence. But what happened to the Richards family that night prompted another small but significant development in a pounds 4 billion industry that has grown inexorably over the past decade and is poised for yet more expansion.

Fifteen years ago, 'security' meant little more than a night watchman dozing in an office. But now it means cameras in city streets, uniformed guards in shopping centres and - most controversially - the increasing takeover by private firms of areas once reserved for police and other public agencies. There is now one uniformed private security officer for each of the country's 130,000 police officers, and the incident in Hadley Wood helps explain why.

As Richards was pushed into the house, he shouted a warning to his family.

His wife hid behind a door, but was dragged out, punched, and threatened.

He managed to break free and hit a panic button, which set off the alarm, but was struck on the head and left semi-conscious. The attackers - watched placidly by the family dog - then found his 12-year-old son and threatened to hurt him if he didn't say where the valuables were kept.

Fortunately, his 15-year-old daughter had heard the uproar and phoned the police from an upstairs bedroom, and the screams and the ringing alarm panicked the robbers into leaving empty-handed. The police arrived in five minutes, followed shortly by a helicopter with a searchlight, but by then the gang had made its escape. No-one has ever been arrested for the attack.

'The most shocking thing was our loss of confidence,' says Richards (not his real name). 'You regard your home as somewhere safe, and suddenly it's not so. It's taken me, as a fairly confident alpha male, about six months to get my confidence back and stop feeling anxious when I go out. We've all had counselling. My son couldn't sleep in his own bed for a month.'

There's little most people can do about this kind of incident, which came as part of a 3% increase in burglary and a 27% increase in street robbery revealed in the recent crime figures, with big cities taking the brunt. But Hadley Wood, in the north London borough of Enfield, is probably the richest enclave in Britain: the incident was one of an escalating series, and the well-heeled residents had the means and the will to do something about it.

Other victims had included the Nigerian striker Kanu, one of several Arsenal footballers who live in the area, along with pop stars and wealthy businessmen. In some cases, people had been followed back from the West End and confronted with weapons as they moved between their car and their well-protected house. After the Richards attack, the residents decided enough was enough and called a meeting.

The outcome was another substantial contract for a private security company, and another step in the seemingly inexorable privatisation of major aspects of public safety. It's a trend that began under the last Conservative government and has been adopted and expanded by New Labour.

The beneficiary in Hadley Wood was SectorGuard, a medium-sized 'manned guarding' company that the residents considered a cut above its rivals in an industry still dogged by a cowboy image. …

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