About Hospital Safety Center  
Career Center  
Contact Us
       Free Resources
Hospital Safety Insider

Mac's Safety Space  
        News & Analysis
Healthcare Safety Leader  
Environment of Care Leader  
Forms and Checklists Library  




The evolving relationship between public and private policing


Continued growth in the private sector has forced the two sides to coexist, particularly in healthcare

The evolving relationship between publicand private policing

Continued growth in the private sector has forced the two sides to coexist, particularly in healthcare

The relationship between public police forces and private security firms is "messy and complex," according to a paper published by Harvard University and the National Institute for Justice, but that doesn't mean it can't be effective.

Although the priorities of each group don't always align, the growth of privatized security over the last several decades has created an environment in which both sides have learned to coexist with each other, often in beneficial ways.

Healthcare is one industry in which that partnership has evolved and sometimes flourished. Hospitals provide security in two ways: in-house, privatized security departments, or third-party contracted security officers.

In either case, hospital security officers and management routinely interact with police officers, either on-duty ones that patrol the surrounding area or off-duty ones hired by the hospital.

Although private/public policing partnerships are effective in many industries, there are still concerns about how each side's priorities line up.

Historically, the relationship between the two has been strained, says Malcolm K. Sparrow, PhD, professor of practice of public management in the criminal justice police and management program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University in Boston and the author of the aforementioned paper published last fall.

Sparrow says democratic governments traditionally rejected the notion of effective private security because it was perceived as a threat to the justice system. But as the private industry grew, the public sector was forced to alter its perspective.

"The notion of private and less well-trained police with less formal systems of accountability being able to exercise force or make arrests or deal with secure issues was kind of repulsive to democratic sensibilities," he says.

"But as the years went by, it grew anyway, and there was a lot of demand for private security services. The public budgets for security were never adequate, and so eventually the inevitable happens, which is the public sector recognizes its inescapable [that a] substantial proportion of security will be privately provided and we're better off engaging responsibly with that sector rather than trying to deny their existence or importance."

Sparrow addresses a variety of ways in which public and private security interact and engage with one another.

Law enforcement frequently uses CCTVs during investigations, most of which are privately owned. There is also extensive use of private security at various sporting events?up to and including the Olympics, which is handled by massive, global security firms.

These arrangements can offer benefits and present risks, which Sparrow outlines in the paper. For example, private/public partnerships can enhance the effectiveness of security by combining complementary or specialized skill sets.

On the other hand, private police may lack appropriate training and threaten security through poor decision-making. Sparrow also includes four scenarios in which public and private police interact with one another. One of the scenarios involves university police experiencing an unusually high rate of robberies and violence in the vicinity of the campus.

In this case, the university and the public police department are motivated by opposite priorities: The university wants to play down the incidents so as not to impact admission rates, while the police strive for transparency and accurate reports of crime.

This scenario could just as easily apply to hospitals. Although both public and private entities strive to prevent violent events from occurring, when it comes to public perception and reporting crime, hospital interests are "diametrically opposed to the public interest" just as universities are.

"[Universities] would prefer to conceal, or tell a comforting story, or withhold it altogether," Sparrow says. "I don't know whether there [are] any marketing incentives for hospitals tied up in being able to present their environment as safe and well-protected, but if there were, you can be sure there is a natural incentive to downplay or conceal events from the press."

In other instances, though, public-private relationships have worked well in healthcare. Hospitals frequently utilize the expertise and training of off-duty police officers to provide an additional layer of security in high-risk areas such as the ED.

Sparrow adds that by doing so, the hospital is also maintaining a connection with the local police department, which translates to a better response when the facility needs to request assistance or has an emergency.

Public-private partnerships have also flourished when private security has pushed for more legitimacy through standards and accreditation, or by reaching out to public police departments for additional training. Larger private security firms often seek that legitimacy to solidify their relationship with public police.

Ultimately, Sparrow says he wrote the paper to provide a clearer understanding of the risks and benefits associated with public-private partnerships, in hopes that this understanding can further such relationships.

"What I would hope for from the private side is they too understand that there is still potential conflict between their fundamental profit motive and the broader public interest, and they shouldn't always expect full alignment," he says. "There will be times when a police department will say, 'That's not the way we're going to do things,' and that they will understand why tensions might arise."

Editor's note: Visit https://ncjrs.gov/pdffiles1/nij/247182.pdf to read the full report.

Subscribe Now!
Sign up for our free e-newsletter
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Statement | Contact Us
Copyright © 2021. Hospital Safety Center.