Uniformed private security guards are an increasingly visible presence on Vancouver streets. Private security companies operate with nominal formal oversight and guards are often sent out on patrol after less than two weeks of training. People living and working in neighbourhoods patrolled by private guards are generally unclear about who security personnel report to or how to make a complaint against a guard. In spite of these issues, there has been little public debate about the growing role played by private security companies in policing public space.
Improving police accountability
On December 13 2007, the City of Vancouver approved $872,000 to fund the expansion of the Downtown Ambassadors Program, a private security patrol project administered by the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). Notwithstanding the influx of public money, the program will continue to be administered entirely by business improvement associations. With taxpayer dollars being allocated by way of an exclusive no-bid contract with a private company, to enhance private security patrols on public property, it is imperative that Vancouverites begin to ask questions about practice standards, oversight and accountability within the private security industry.
In 2007, Pivot Legal Society recruited 154 people from the Downtown Eastside to complete a survey about their interactions with private security guards. Two focus groups were conducted to allow researchers the opportunity to ask follow-up questions based on the results of the survey. This study focuses on the experiences of those most on the margins of society, but it raises issues that should alarm anyone committed to democratic policing, accountable governance and respect for human rights. Through this research, Pivot identified a number of central issues:There is a high level of interaction between private security guards and residents of the Downtown Eastside. In response to the question, “In an average month, how often do you interact (have face to face contact) with private security guards?” a third of survey respondents reported having such contact four times or more per month.
There is a high level of interaction between private security guards and residents of the Downtown Eastside. In response to the question, “In an average month, how often do you interact (have face to face contact) with private security guards?” a third of survey respondents reported having such contact four times or more per month. Many participants added comments like “every day” or “all the time” in the space provided. Twelve percent of respondents had face to face contact once per month.Homeless people and under-housed people have more frequent, and more problematic, interactions with security guards. Results from the survey suggest a direct relationship between individuals’ housing status and the frequency of their interactions with private security personnel.
This study finds that negative impacts of the expansion of private security services are felt most profoundly by those living on the margins. The findings also show the need for rigorous monitoring and accountability mechanisms in order to ensure that policing bodies, whether public or private, carry out their work in a just, equitable, accountable and efficient manner rooted in respect for the rights and dignity of all people regardless of race, ancestry, socio-economic status, or mental and physical ability.