The deeply divisive rise of London’s private police – Evening Standard

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Despite feeling hotter than a Texan summer here, the Wild West is hardly what springs to mind when you think of lush Richmond Green in mid-August. But for months, residents say, that’s what it’s felt like in this bucolic slice of west London, where complaints about lockdown lawlessness have piled up higher than the litter heaps dotting its village green after last night’s revelry again got out of hand. So like a stricken small town in a Western, they took what one local tells me is a “full-blown law and order problem” into their own hands, hiring a private police force to ride to their rescue.

“Pretty much from the get-go of lockdown we’ve had hundreds here from midday to well past one o’clock in the morning, smashing beer bottles against bins and leaving nitrous oxide canisters everywhere,” says Olly Scott, 42, who lives around the corner from the Green’s white Victorian villas peeking out at its picturesque cricket square. “But we complain to the police and council and nothing happens.”

That’s not strictly accurate — in June the police did deal with reports of stabbings, a mass brawl and a gathering of over 100 people here in Richmond over just one sweltering weekend and secured a dispersal order. But residents say an overstretched Metropolitan Police is slow to respond to smaller incidents (the local police station closed in 2018 due to cuts), that drug dealers act with impunity, and that they feel “isolated and cut off from help”.

Alex Angolov, who manages a coffee shop on the adjoining high street, tells me his front window has been smashed in four times this year, setting him back £4,000. In response community groups explored hiring security guards in hi-vis jackets from a private company to patrol the Green and the town centre.

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The experiment ended ignominiously. A small Twitter storm erupted after a video posted on 17 July showed a man in a hi-vis jacket hauling another man from a scooter in broad daylight (residents say the rider was a known criminal with an outstanding warrant). “Two patrolling guys terrorised high street,” the tweeter posted. Police arrested a man, 39, on suspicion of assault. He has been released under investigation pending inquiries. (The council says it and the Met accept the man was a local resident piloting a patrol scheme, and not a hired guard.)

“The Met brought the hammer down on our patrols,” says Scott, who adds that Richmond council then withdrew the extra Parks Patrol Service officers they’d lent the area. “Now we’re more on our own than ever.”

Councillor Gareth Roberts rebuts this, saying that they have increased patrol capacity. “Having this kind of unruly behaviour on your doorstep is unacceptable,” he admits. “Unfortunately, as we have seen from footage across other parts of the capital, it is not unique to Richmond upon Thames.”

Residents here are far from alone in feeling the need to take matters into their own hands. Lockdown has led to a boom in residential communities in London turning to private policing. Officer numbers in London recently fell to their lowest level per head in 20 years. Meanwhile, reports of antisocial behaviour rocketed by an unprecedented 270 per cent in March and April during lockdown (although many extra cases can be attributed to people breaching lockdown guidelines).

We’ve had a 50 per cent increase from London residents wanting security and mobile patrols.

John Moore, Westminster Security

John Moore is managing director of Westminster Security, a private security company which usually deals with “high net worth” clients in Mayfair, Knightsbridge, Chelsea and Cobham. He says: “Over the four-month period I’d easily say we’ve had a 50 per cent increase, without being dramatic, of calls from typical London residents wanting security and mobile patrols. Since the lockdown everyone’s become closer, and they’re obviously keen on protecting their families, their vehicles, and the properties they’re spending so much time in. There’s been a lot of clubbing together from residents’ associations and neighbourhood watches to pay for properly equipped patrols.”

Moore says that a “flooded market” of would-be security officials (many trained for the London Olympics) means the cost of hiring your own ersatz copper is only £20 for two hours.

Richmond residents tell me they are now hoping to turn to My Local Bobby (MLB), a private company that puts former police officers on uniformed patrol in London. It charges as little at £50 a month per resident to dedicate an officer to local “microbeats” (about three square miles) in London and station officers from central London shopping locations to Woodford Green (where 139 residents pay to have their “bobby”, Luke, to keep an eye out for crimes). Lockdown has put them on a recruitment drive too — “because we’ve had to take on so many large contracts”, says Tony Nash, one of two former police officers who founded the company three years ago. Employees are equipped with handcuffs, a body cam and a first aid kit, and are trained to make citizens’ arrests.

“They’ve taken policing to a whole new level,” says Simon Lester, a hotelier who lives in Hadley Wood, where MLB has apprehended and prosecuted three men for attempted robbery this year. “Even the actual police recognise they couldn’t hope to provide that level of security”.

Trouble spot: Richmond Green (Alamy Stock Photo)

It’s a precariously thin blue line to walk — critics fear it’s the start of a slippery slope to privatising safety on the street. “I’ve got no problem with people wanting to protect their property. What we can’t have is private security guards or individuals roaming the streets and taking the law into their own hands,” says Roberts. But Nash can point to hard results. While MLB is tasked with properly reporting and preventing crimes, its parent companyTM Eye is a private prosecutions unit that has recently brought 16 charges against alleged petty criminals who usually slip beneath the police’s under-resourced radar this year, with CCTV footage of the thefts, video confessions and witness statements supporting prosecution cases put together by its lawyers. One shoplifter has already been convicted and will be sentenced in September.

David McKelvey,TM Eye director, another former Met Police detective chief inspector and Nash’s co-founder, said it had launched the prosecution service after frustration with the police’s refusal to prosecute shoplifters his officers caught. “The police would either not turn up or when they did, they literally took the handcuffs off the shoplifters, told them not to be a naughty boy, and not to do it again. Within hours, those people were committing offences in a different shop or even the same shop,” he says.

What we can’t have is individuals roaming the streets and taking the law into their own hands.

 Councillor Gareth Roberts

Are we spiralling, then, towards a future where private security operatives police our public spaces? Lester says that in his community, non-members of My Local Bobby are now targeted by criminals who steer clear of properties known to subscribe to the patrol service. Anna Minton, author of Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first-century City, argues that reality is already here. From the 13 acres of Southbank that encompass City Hall to Granary Square in King’s Cross (now home to Google and Facebook’s HQ), she points out that London is dotted with “privately-owned public spaces”, or Pops, where hi-vis jacketed security officials enforce the landlords’ rules, often without disclosing them.

“All these spaces actually decrease trust between people and create a more fearful environment,” says Minton. “It’s open air, invisible gating, if you like. You just create a much less free and inclusive city for everyone, a city where lots of people will think they don’t really belong there. It’s a Canary Wharf model being rolled out across the city, and it creates a very divided city, and that’s not a very comfortable place to be.” The best communities, Minton argues, self-police when people can rub up against each other on busy, diverse streets of a city.

Scott knows which solution would allow him to sleep soundly at night. “We know we’re lucky to live here, and we want everyone to feel they can share this space safely,” he says. But he says he feels turfed out of the home he’s made here. “The way things are going, it feels like the Green simply belongs to whoever is willing to take it for themselves.”

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