Roles and Responsibilities of Public and Private Policing

Table of Content


The continued growth of society in all areas continues to narrow the gap between services provide by both public entities and the private sector. One area that is of concern is the increased crime rate, lawlessness and the need for enhanced security that challenges the boundaries of formulated policing. There is always a need for safety crime prevention, maintaining peace and law and order. Consequently, the police department was established by government to perform these roles. The police are the individuals with the blue uniforms clearly labeled police. However, looking around there are many people in blue uniforms, for instance in the department stores, who are not exactly police men but perform more or less the same duties as providing security as the police. These are private security personnel.

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For the better part of the 20th century, the American society has had to rely principally on the police and the Criminal Justice System to deal with crime. As a result, public policing became an integral part of modern society. According to Fisher and Green, crime has grown in magnitude over the years overpowering both the police and the Criminal Justice System. More over, it has become a very costly issue. The public sector cut backs in budget have only strained the basic functions involved in public policing aggravating the needs and expectations of a taxpaying public. It has over stressed the public law enforcement agencies. It is for this reason that people have switched to private policing/security as a way or preventing and controlling crime. (1998)

Private policing plays a crucial part in today’s world. Crime is happening all around. With the public law enforcement officers and agencies beleaguered, people can only turn to the private officers and firms. According to Fisher and Green the private security which is related to private policing has grown considerably such that its total expenditure has surpassed that of the public law enforcement agencies (1998). As of 2006, there were 1 million guards (private officers) (United States Department of labor, 2007).

According to Button (2002), though private policing is an emerging industry in America, it is however, not a new phenomenon. Private policing was in existence way before the advent of the public police.

There are inherent similarities and differences between public and private policing. To a great extent, there is no absolute clear distinction between public police and private police. This can be attributed to the fact that the public police behave in much the same way as the private police.

Defining the concepts of private and public policing

According to Larrabee, the average person correctly associates public policing with the

Police department, which is charged with the duty of protecting people and arresting the law breakers. The main aim of public policing is the maintenance of law and order, the preservation of peace and the prevention of crime. Public police are under the jurisdiction of the government. Consequently, they are paid for using tax dollars and grants (2007). On the other hand, private policing may serve many different roles in society. For instance, they may be involved in the prevention of crime as guards or they may also be involved in criminal investigations as private investigators. Thus, private policing mostly makes the use of security guards and private investigators (Larrabee, 2007).

Just like in public policing, private policing also involves the prevention of crime. On the other hand, while public policing offers services to society as a whole, private policing is more private in nature. It is only restricted to certain quarters. For instance, security guards may only prevent

crime in shopping malls or banks and not on the streets which is the preserve of  public policing.

Though sometimes they may be armed, security officers in private security/policing comprise

mostly of the unarmed guards (Nemeth, 2004). Unarmed security officers is used to refer to the

people who personally sentry, watch or patrol private property without the backing of a weapon

or even a guard dog. (Department of Justice and Attorney General, 2009) Hence, in most

instances, unarmed officers are what we would refer to as guards. They may commonly be found

in banks, hospitals or department stores. Their main task is to ensure that no security mishaps occur. Thus, the main distinction between armed and unarmed officers in private security lies in their capacity to accomplish what the general public associates them with; fighting crime. Ask any random person what duty security officers are charged with and the response will probably be the prevention of deadly and unlawful attacks on innocent people (Duvernay, 1990) Even so, regardless of their duties, they should be able to sufficiently respond to the need of the general public. While the unarmed officers are to be found in various establishments, it is anticipated that they should never be surrogate for public law enforcement officers. Though these is becoming debatable, it is public policing that is provided for by law to maintain law and order and prevent crime (Private Security Officer Quality Assurance Act of 1995, 1995)

Comparing private and public policing

According to Larrabee (2007), though public and private policing essentially perform the same tasks, they nonetheless employ very different practices.

According to Skogan and Frydl, the police are charged with many different responsibilities which are not always clearly defined. Nonetheless, public policing has always been at the forefront when come to protecting society. Consequently, their major asset when it comes to the performance of this task is accountability (2004).

One of the greatest roles of public sector policing is the law enforcement (Fisher & Green, 1998). To effectively enforce the law, public policing then allows officers to carry weapons (guns) and use force. In addition, they are accorded the authority to arrest law breakers. Conversely, private policing does not include the role of enforcing law. More over, the security guards are not allowed to carry such weapons as guns, though they may be allowed to use force and arrest but only in the process of containing security threats. The reason why security guards are not allowed to carry weapons lies in the fact that they are often not effectively trained, if at all, on the handle and use of weapons. Furthermore, they are not allowed by law to do so (Fisher & Green, 1998).

It would be correct to conclude that the job responsibilities of private and public policing are very much the same. Police officers and the security guards are assigned the responsibilities of preventing crime and/or to patrol certain public areas. For the police, it may be the streets while for the security guard it may be the local department store. It is only the context that is different. Therefore, public policing carries out its responsibilities in the public domain while private policing does so in the private domain. While police officers are trained and paid by the government, security guards are trained and paid by private individual.

According to studies, to some people, the appearance of a uniformed policeman on the streets evokes feelings of respect and security. In the course of their preventing crime and maintaining law and order, the credibility and respect of the public police officers is constantly under test. Nevertheless, they remain more respectable than the individual hired in the private policing. It may be argued that the fact that police officers carry guns around is what makes them more respectable. It is hard to believe that an officer without some king of weapon would be able to ensure one’s security when it came down to it. To most people, guns are the ultimate protection weapons. They deter crime since criminals will be afraid of striking in the presence of an armed officer (Larrabee, 2007).

According to Swol, sworn police officers are charged with the role of preserving peace and assisting victims of crime. In the process of maintaining peace, the police officer’s main responsibility is making sure that the citizens are out of harms way. Public officers operate under oath from the police department and the state. Consequently, they are expected to perform their roles and responsibilities effectively and accordingly (1999). Unlike public policing where an officer is not accorded the option of choosing the duty to perform, individuals in private policing have the options. Consequently, they can settle for duties and responsibilities that they are better suited for. This allowed for flexibility in private policing. Individual in private policing will perform a myriad of task just as long as they get paid at the end of the day. However, it is important to note that both private and public policing regulate the entry and limits participation of individuals based on their history. Accordingly, if one has ever been arrested and/or convicted of a criminal offence they are locked out of a career in policing (United States Department of Labor, 2007).

When it comes to the role or arresting criminals and the responsibility of collecting evidence, public unlike private policing regulatory actions are hampered by probable cause. On the contrary, private policing operates behind the legal and traditional boundaries where the public police may not cross unless by way of invitation or probable cause. As a result, private sector is considered to have a broader enterprise than public policing and with a wider range of functions (Larrabee, 2007).

Another important role that is performed by the public officers but not by private officers is the issuance and execution of warrants. The warrants could be for arrest or search. In the event that officers have probable cause to believe that an individual may be hiding illegal (contraband goods) or was an accomplice in a crime, they have the right to issue search warrants and even arrest the suspects. This role is especially important as it reduces exposure of members of the public to threats and risks (Swol, 1999). Private policing may not issue and execute arrest and search warrants for the simple fact that they do not have the backing of the law. In some instances, individuals in private policing may not be appropriately licensed

According to Larrabee, in the process of performing their roles and responsibilities, public policing officers do not have a negotiating factor; they are directly answerable to the public. Conversely, private policing demands that the customers needs are fulfilled failure to which they are in breach of their terms of contract. Public police officers are paid for their service whether the services they offered were on point or not (2007). This argument is what has led to the classification of private policing as a preserve of the rich and public policing for the poor. This is more truthful than a fallacy. Consider this. The end goal of private policing is to protect the interests (life and property) of the paying clients. Consequently, the focus is more on loss prevention rather on crime prevention.

According, to Council of Europe, while the terms private and public policing may elucidate on an adversarial relationship between private and public police, the truth is that they are more complementary. It is openly evident that private and public officers are assigned pretty much the same roles and responsibilities. To a greater extent the roles and responsibilities that were the preserve of public policing have been assumed and as a result become part of private policing (Council of Europe, 2001).


In the last 30 years, both private and public policing have become major components of the criminal justice field. It would be impossible to imagine America without the presence of both forces. The most important roles performed by the two are the prevention of crime and maintenance of law and order. The most important responsibility is security provision to individuals. For a long time, the most of these roles and responsibilities have been the preserve of public policing. However, over the years private policing has gained prominence. While public and private policing may perform the same roles and responsibilities, it is the context that differs. Again, mandate makes it difficult for private policing to partake in some roles, for instance, issue warrants. Instead of focusing on similarities and differences of public and private policing, it would be more beneficial to find avenues through which the two may collaborate. It would result in more effective crime control. After all, they are both part of the modern society and they are not going anywhere.


Button, M. (2002). Private policing. London: Wilan Publishing

Council of Europe. (2001). Police powers and accountability in a democratic society. Brussels:

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Duvernay, G. (1990). When a gun matters: Irrational attacks regularly lead to the death of police

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Fisher, R. & Green, G. (1998). Introduction to security. London: Butterworth-Heinemann.

Larrabee, A. (2007). The debate on private versus public policing. Associated Content. Retrieved

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Nemeth, C. (2004). Private security and the law. London: Butterworth-Heinemann.

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Skogan, W. & Frydl, K. (2004). Fairness and effectiveness in policing. Washington: National

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