Thursday, 12 November 2009

Fearless Francis's private police tackle "lawless streets"

The Daily Mail, not a rag I have any time for, last week called Skerne Park in Darlington a "crime-ridden estate" where "private police" were being paid by local residents to patrol their "lawless streets." Today, the Echo carries a piece by Jim Entwhistle who has been out on patrol with Fearless Francis Jones, the former boxer and night club bouncer turned born-again Christian who heads up Sparta Security, who are providing the new private police force. It seems Fearless Francis used to have his pick of the women going into the town's nightclubs, places apparently "full of drink, drugs and evil things". But he turned his back on that for Jesus.

Nowadays Fearless Francis charges local residents £3.50 a week each to "look after" their property and reassure people it is safe to leave their homes at night. According to one resident, "Francis has a fearsome reputation - I have heard of him taking on three blokes at a time. More than that, he is a lovely bloke who will look out for us."

The emergence of this private police force on our streets could be seen as a consequence of the Council's short-sighted decision to take the town's ASB wardens off the streets and replace them with office-based staff. We know the police are the best equipped and best-trained people to deal with these problems, but we also know they just can't respond to every call. They don't have the manpower, as we saw a couple of weeks ago in Springfield Park.

Where there's a vacuum, you can be sure someone like Fearless Francis will spot an opportunity and step right in. There is no doubt, as I know from North Road, that residents miss the wardens. Limited though their powers were, they provided a reassuring presence, particularly for elderly residents.

I do find this development worrying for two reasons.

In a generally peaceful town like Darlington the fact that there are some people who feel so unprotected in their homes and businesses that they are prepared to pay for private protection reflects poorly on both the Council and the Police. Maybe, as Cllr Dixon is fond of telling us, people have no reason to feel scared: it's all down to watching too many episodes of The Bill. But the fact is that some people do feel intimidated and in need of greater protection and clearly the authorities are not succeeding in meeting this need.

I have been out on patrol with the Police, and previously with the wardens, and I've had a number of meetings with the Anti-Social Behaviour team, and there is no doubting the sincerity and professionalism of their officers and their wish to provide a good service. So, why do so many people think that service is not being provided?

But secondly, it is worrying that a private police force can roam our streets at night, breaking up groups of kids who may be gathering peacefully. Will Fearless Francis and his private police have the training to deal appropriately with the young people they come across? We don't want decent, law-abiding kids to be targetted by a group of former night club bouncers roaring around the streets in their white vans. The police can act appropriately. Do these security guys have the training to act appropriately in each different situation they'll come across?

And what about kids they do find who have been drinking or are in some sort of trouble? What will they do then? The police would take them into Gladstone Street to be seen by youth workers and anti-social behaviour officers - for their own protection if necessary. Fearless Francis will just be moving them on. And since they have no powers of arrest, and no back-up from trained personnel, they can only achieve this by intimidation.

Our streets should be made safe at night, but at the same time they shouldn't be patrolled by private police forces. I don't think this is what we want to see on the streets of Darlington. But neither do we want a continuation of the levels of anti-social behaviour which have provoked this response. This is a tricky situation, and I am concerned that so far there appears to have been no response whatsoever from the Council about what is now happening on our streets at night.

The police had this to say:

"We have no issue with Mr Jones starting up a business at all. The only concern we have is that members of the public should be aware that Sparta employees do not have the same powers as a police officer or police community support officer.
"In fact Mr Jones' security staff, although trained, can only react to an incident in the same way as a member of the public could."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair said there should be no role for the private sector in law enforcement in Britain and the Police Federation, which represents officers, urged authorities to be “wary” about giving them power. If Sir Ian lived on an ordinary housing estate and got his back door kicked one night by yobbos who were prepared to knife him just to steal his plasma TV, he would be far less hostile towards the idea of private security initiatives like Francis Jones and Sparta. Indeed, they would probably be faster to respond to his call for help than the real coppers!

Older people – pensioners in particular – feel very vulnerable in their own homes these days, and it doesn’t help when the police take three hours or even a full day or more to respond to 999 calls reporting criminal behavour.

Francis Jones has his fair share of critics, but I applaud him for taking the initiative in ensuring that his neighbourhood is kept safe and that people can just pick up the phone and call for help. He still responds positively even if you don’t sign up for his services. And for what I have seen so far, Francis is doing a great job and his neighbours speak very highly of him and the service he provides. And therin lies the “problem.” When Sparta and other security services are doing a positive job and winning the approval of the locals, the police feel threatened. The negativity towards Sparta and other security firms doing a similar job smacks of blatant protectionism.

Regarding Sir Ian Blair, the man was sacked for a reason. He did nothing to tackle crime and was only interested in turning the Met into a force of politically correct robots.

The police in the UK should look across the pond here and see that a positive working relationship between the police and good security services can go a long way in keeping people safe and the bad guys on the run!