Private police + G4S = Hot Mess of Olympian Proportions

Opening Ceremonies for the London Olympics are still a day away, but if there were a medal ceremony for fleecing, G4S would be occupying all three spots on the podium.

Few took notice when G4S, the world’s largest private security company, won the contract to provide security for the London Olympics. The original contract had G4S training and deploying 2,000 guards for £86 million.  A few months later, the contract ballooned to 13,700 guards for £284 million. Hefty, yes, but seemingly not too heavy a lift in light of the firm’s astonishing raw numbers: 657,000 employees in 125 countries doing £7.5 billion in business a year.

Swimmers swam, weightlifters lifted, runners ran, and G4S got to work recruiting and training security personnel.  Then, three weeks ago before the start of the Olympics, G4S top boss Nick Buckles announced his firm would not be able to deliver.

Chief Buckles conceded under intense examination in the House of Commons last week that his company’s performance has been a “humiliating shambles,” but  steadfastly refused to give back G4S’s £57 million (that’s $90 million) management fee.  On the street, meanwhile, every type of police, Scotland Yard, and the military are being trucked in to mind the gap.

Suddenly under scrutiny now is not only G4S’s Olympics gig, but its private prisons, immigration detention centers, probation supervision services, and its recent, aggressive grab for contracts to take over policing.  Lincolnshire’s decision to pay G4S to build and run its police station, and then transferring 575 police officers to the company, suddenly seemed perhaps more knuckleheaded than forward thinking.

Private prisons have become part of the landscape (literally), and we are starting to take notice of the prevalence of private probation, but private police? Not just unarmed security guards in ill-fitting uniforms, but actual police, with arrest powers.  According to the Guardian, G4S’s top brass “boasts that private companies will be running large parts of the UK’s police service within five years.” 

How did we get here?

The story starts out well enough.  In 1842, a barrel-maker from Glasgow named Allan Pinkerton found his way to making barrels in Dundee, IL.  In short order, the young Scot became the first detective of Chicago’s newly formed police force.  Alongside his sleuthing duties for the City of Broad Shoulders, Pinkerton formed the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, the country’s first private security firm.  Railroad companies hired Pinkerton to chase down train robbers like Jesse James (no dice), and President-elect Lincoln hires Pinkerton to protect him en route to his inauguration. When the Civil War broke out, the President called on Pinkerton’s firm to gather military intelligence. Pinkerton sent young men south, “assuming a role” as Confederates, and so began both undercover counterinsurgency work and military contracting.

After the War, Pinkerton’s loyalty to the railroad magnates took his company down an ignoble turn.  In the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 that swept from West Virginia through Missouri, the violent response by police (actual and deputized) and militiamen that left dozens of strikers dead.   Writing in defense of his agents’ role in the strike, Pinkerton gave this justification:

Even wild beasts show a certain regard for brute regulation and authority, and instances are given by naturalists where apparent sedition and turbulence on the part of unmanageable members of these brute families have met with complete extermination as punishment.

Working for the corporation and the government, Pinkerton’s agents were on the side of law and order. Those opposed were wild beasts.  This world view animated Pinkerton’s agency – and the thousands of private security firms that sprang up in imitation – for the next hundred years.

The size of the sector grew in accordance with general population growth, but then exploded alongside the rise in incarceration and the war on drugs starting in the early 1970’s.  Rand researchers in 1971 estimated there were 350,000 “private officers.”  The Washington Post in 2007 estimated 2 million private security officers.  The number of public police officers during the same period rose much more modestly, from 510,000 to 700,000.

Private policing took on different forms: private security forces paid by businesses to protect that business; private forces guarding public entities; public police officers hired by the private sector; and residential and commercial tax district funded policing.

The line between all these kinds of private policing and real police has shifted and wavered.  Many private guards are now armed, conspicuously so in states that allow the open carry of handguns.  Security guards are trained to use the citizen’s arrest to make arrests (except in North Carolina, where a state law explicitly gives “company police officers” the same arrest powers as municipal and county police.)  Larger retail stores have rooms that effectively serve as holding cells, and Target operates accredited forensic labs in Minneapolis and Law Vegas.

A few towns in the U.S. have gone as far as considering a full on replacement of their municipal police force with a private one.  Foley, Minnesota (pop. 2600) almost hired out a private police security company, but after the story caught the attention of USA Today and other media outlets, the little town voted in February 2012 to restart its own police department.   Back in 1993, Sussex, NJ (pop. 2600 as well), contracted with a private security firm when its two of their police officers were indicted by the county prosecutor, cutting their little force in half.  The private security officers had uniforms but no police powers, and the contract was dissolved after it was challenged in court by the New Jersey Attorney General.

With G4S’s massive fail at the Olympics, the company’s stock took a beating and their immediate prospects in the U.K. are a few watts dimmer.  But there’s little doubt the company will make a quick recovery.  The 100+ year old company took over Wackenhut in 2002, then two years later, became ginormous G4S when enormous Group 4 Falck (then a 230,000 person operation) gobbled up the merely very large British security company Securicor (100,000 employees).

Here in the U.S., 50,000 people work for G4S Americas.   On the company’s jobs board today, alongside the search for hundreds of security officers (Fargo, ND $11.50/hr; Honolulu, HI $10/hr.), there is a sales job in Atlanta where you can “Accomplish your most important professional goals by assisting our General Manager achieve new heights of success, as we sell our world-class security solutions.”  It pays $60-70,000 plus commissions.

Should you get that job, adult prisons are no longer part of sales target area (G4S got rid of Wackenhut’s adult prisons by spinning off GEO Group in 2003) but a growth area is juvenile lock-up.  G4S runs nineteen juvenile facilities, mostly in Florida.

Another growth area is electronic monitoring. The company has 40,000 people wearing its ankle bracelets, and your job in sales would be to dig out more markets and sell sell sell the benefits of your company’s 24/7 GPS monitoring.  For an additional fee, usually covered by the person being monitored, the GPS monitor can be tricked out with VI-CAP, able to sniff out the increase in ethanol gas emitted from your skin when you drink alcohol.

Your commissions would go through the roof if you can figure out how to deepen the company’s reach into immigration enforcement.  G4S already runs the transport buses for the Border Patrol.  Or perhaps you can replicate the company’s success in the U.K. in bringing private businesses into private prisons.  This brochure offers up the 7,000 prisoners locked up in six U.K. prisons managed by G4S as a “dedicated, motivated workforce with a range of skills, ready to work around your needs and to your exacting standards.”

And because you’re in Atlanta, you may have the inside track to capitalize on creative thinking by Atlanta-based G4S Justice Services President Darryl Martin, who predicts that the next big industry advancement will involve predicting offender behavior based on historical population data. Because G4S monitors tens of thousands of offenders every day, behavioral patterns can be tracked and analyzed to help officials predict if and when an offender might slip up.

Creepy?  Maybe. But think of the commissions!

It’s enough to make you pine for the good old days of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.  The company is still around, but as a subsidiary after being gobbled up by Securitas in 1999.  Even at less than half the size of G4S, Securitas is a behemoth, with 300,000 employers in 50 countries.  One of its specialties is staffing gated communities, especially along the low country coast of South Carolina, where the gap between rich and poor is particularly wide.  To keep their clients living within the gated communities safe, the company’s branch manager boasts, “Our officers…have the same arrest authority as police do.”  And the company can call on more than arrest powers to deliver on its promises of security, including this Pinkerton Vigilance incidence and trend data monitoring system, because “trouble can happen anywhere, anytime.”

The details of how this exceedingly modern day Pinkerton Vigilance works are murky, but the ethos is clear: law and order on one side of the gate, wild beasts on the other.  Allan Pinkerton lives on.

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