The popular 2003–2015 British crime show New Tricks, repeats of which appear regularly on New Zealand television, is about a trio of detectives brought out of retirement and attached to a London police squad to investigate unsolved crime.

It’s an entertaining premise – but it’s no longer as fictional as it once appeared.

Earlier this year, Essex Police in the United Kingdom advertised for civilian volunteers, including retired officers, to work alongside detectives helping investigate crime. This followed the Home Secretary’s 2015 proposal to give stronger powers to police volunteers to take witness statements and even detain suspects.

The reason is austerity. Since 2010, some UK police services have experienced budget cuts of 25 percent, causing dramatic reductions in officer numbers.

It’s little wonder many chief constables have identified citizen volunteers as a solution. As of July 2018, almost 40,000 police volunteers were operating in England and Wales.

In the United States, reserve citizen officers operate with full police powers – including the authority to use firearms – a practice that can be traced back to the deputising powers of the local sheriff.

Such developments might sound a long way away from New Zealand, but are in fact already here – albeit in more limited forms.

Through a process called ‘pluralisation’, New Zealand Police no longer enjoys a policing monopoly, if it ever truly did. Many other organisations are now involved in delivering policing and police no longer supply society’s primary crime-deterrent presence.

The private security industry is the most obvious manifestation of ‘plural policing’ and its remarkable worldwide growth means there is no longer any role performed by police that is not also provided by private security. In New Zealand, the ratio of licensed security personnel to sworn police officers is just over 2:1.

There has also been a renaissance of citizen-led policing. A prime example is Community Patrols of New Zealand (CPNZ). It has grown significantly over the past decade and now has 4500 active patrollers around the country. Organisational changes brought about through funding and logistical support from the Ministry of Justice and New Zealand Police have transformed CPNZ from a loose collection of ad hoc patrols into a sophisticated national organisation whose members are now vetted, trained and uniformed.

The patrols’ roles have also expanded. Historically confined to non-confrontational ‘eyes and ears’, their additional duties now include monitoring CCTV networks, stewarding large events and providing assistance during disasters.

CPNZ’s activities in 2018 included: 160,000 hours of patrolling; 1.2 million kilometres travelled; 30,000 hours of monitoring CCTV in major centres; and reporting more than 40,000 incidents to police.

Clearly, CPNZ has made a significant contribution to community safety in a general sense, but we don’t have a way to measure its specific impacts or follow reported incidents to their outcome. This is an important criticism.

The most important development in pluralisation, however, is the remarkable growth of private security. Numerous factors help explain this shift, including police withdrawal from some services after the police executive declared in the 1980s that the private sector was better placed to provide them.

For example, commercial alarms used to be hardwired into police stations, but the service was withdrawn because of insufficient resources and other priorities. Until the 1990s, police routinely policed semi-public spaces such as shopping malls and sports stadiums.

As police withdrew from these roles, security companies filled the gaps.

There has also been a notable increase in private investigation. Now most types of fraud are investigated by private companies or in-house investigation teams.

All these developments represent a creeping process of privatisation. It wasn’t announced anywhere and nor was it the subject of any meaningful political debate. It just happened.

Because we are so reliant on private security, it is essential its personnel and services are up to scratch. Yet industry regulation here continues to lag behind other countries, including Australia.

Until 2013, there was no mandatory training for a public-facing security licence, so just about anyone could apply and likely be approved for any security-related role. Now, at least, there is an expectation of training.

However, security guarding – easily the largest industry sector – remains an essentially minimum-wage position despite the significant responsibilities it entails. These responsibilities are recognised in other parts of the world, as reflected in the quality and quantity of training. In Sweden, security guards have 300 hours of mandatory training. In New Zealand, it is as little as two days.

Even industry insiders, as revealed in my research, recognise the poor standards and low levels of professionalism associated with the guarding sector – often described as the industry’s Achilles heel. The New Zealand Security Association also continues to lobby government to improve regulations and training.

If plural policing continues to grow in New Zealand, it is entirely plausible that even more duties could be delegated to private security and volunteers. In fact, establishing a volunteer rural constabulary was considered by the Government.

But before any further delegation occurs, better quality training and industry regulation are required.

With plenty of models to emulate, including those in the UK, policing here may also be learning new tricks.

Trevor Bradley is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Social and Cultural Studies at Victoria University of Wellington.

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