Case Studies

THEOs and LETs in London

by Mark Rowe

I recently lunched with a Londoner who’s an old hand and well-known in the security industry, Mark Rowe writes.

We got to talking about how, for all the progress made by the security industry and all the troubles of the police, the monopoly of on-street policing remains with the police. Yes, in numerous places, uniformed SIA-badged and sometimes CSAS-badged (Community Safety Accreditation Scheme) security officers are doing police-like work, in semi-public places or outright public places: to name a few, at holiday parks on the coast, on duty at the entrances to hotels in Kent housing migrants who’ve crossed the Channel; around campuses, business parks and shopping malls. But private security has not routinely become on a par with police, in ways that some in the contract guarding sector even in pre-SIA days hoped, eyeing big and profitable contracts and the kudos that would go with them.

I gave one reason why private security hasn’t gone even further, that police have carried out a successful defence of their responsibilities, and the man I was lunching with gave another reason: the public wouldn’t have it. No matter how out of date or altogether always wrong their assumption is, they believe that if something goes wrong – they see or suffer violence – they ought to ring 999 and they expect a prompt and satisfactory response. The same as they would ring 999 for the fire brigade if their house caught fire, or they would ring 999 if a family member collapsed, for an ambulance. Despite the austerity since 2010 and the creaks in service, the public sector has held.

At least in London, though, boroughs (the capital’s local government) have invested greatly in uniformed protective services. To take only two boroughs from opposite sides of the city, Hammersmith and Fulham in the west and Tower Hamlets in the east.

Last month was Anti-Social Behaviour Awareness Week; like other weeks or days for seemingly everything, it was an occasion to publicise work done regularly. Tower Hamlets enforcement officers, THEOs for short, are CSAS accredited by the Met Police, giving THEOs powers to confiscate alcohol from street drinkers borough-wide under a public space protection order (PSPO), and issue fines for ‘environmental crime’ such as littering, Unlicensed Street Trading and NOX (nitrous oxide) use. Such council cops (my phrase, not any boroughs’) have taken root because of the old saying, if you want something doing, do it yourself. Fly-tipping, to take only one example, annoys residents (also known as voters) so that it makes political sense for elected councillors to want to address what is a local government matter anyway. Like any force, the Met Police have so many calls on their time – guarding Westminster and ambassadors, political demos, public order, drug dealing, violence against women and girls (VAWG), counter-terrorism – that something like ‘environmental crime’ can get entirely forgotten, pushed down the bottom of any wish list, or addressed in ‘days of action’ that are not any substitute for routine attention to a problem.

Local government can put its stamp on its uniformed services. A recent strategic delivery and performance report to Tower Hamlets’ Cabinet, spoke of THEOs as delivering ‘a trauma-informed and culturally competent service to young adults, often victims of violence and drug related harms and those most marginalised in the community’. In fact it’s striking – besides how understandably relentlessly boroughs seek to show their best face in all that they do, besides their maina for secrecy – how strongly, boroughs focus on measurement of performance. The same goes for every council services, even emptying household and commercial bins. And as citizens paying for those services, we should be glad: do we want council staff not held to account for how well they perform?! Such a focus on targets does offer at least hope that a council service doesn’t get bogged down in the bureaucracy and jargon that always threatens to smother local government, like weeds in a garden. That Tower Hamlets report also spoke of setting up a ‘Mayor’s Anti-Crime and Disorder Taskforce to provide an immediate response to the rising epidemic of violence’ and a ‘new VAWG Strategy’.

Yet it’s long been known in hospitals and policing that targets can lead to good, poor or outright perverse outcomes, depending on what’s measured. Briefly put, it’s easier to measure quantity (number of appointments; or ‘disruptions’ of county lines drug-dealing gangs) than quality (happiness of patients; or whether drug-dealing is only interrupted by arrests, until some other drug dealers meet the demand).

Focus is better than aimless, ambling work – to stay with the Tower Hamlets report, and fly-tipping, it spoke of a ‘Waste Management Taskforce’ working at ‘reported fly-tip hotspots’. It set a target of upgrading 350 CCTV cameras a year. That’s only sensible, like taking your car for its MoT. It’s harder to put any meaning on any target set for number of hours of patrolling by THEOs – due to rise to 15,000 a year, from 10,000. We can think of so many variables – where are the patrollers going, what times of day; and who’s to say that their work is effective – residents surveyed in opinion polls? The document also sets a target of 80 per cent of victims of violence against women and girls who feel safer ‘after engaging with commissioned provider’. Community safety is notoriously difficult to measure; and should any police or other stakeholders’ view be taken into account?

The sums boroughs have invested in policing against nuisances is significant, although not on the scale of the Met overall – Hammersmith & Fulham Council’s Law Enforcement Team (LET) numbers 72; an advertised post for a THEOs team leader in Tower Hamlets has a salary of £52k.

The background is that anti-social behaviour (ASB), which often is (even if left unmentioned) due to drug addicts and drug-dealing in public, remains a concern for the public, which has even percolated to 10 Downing Street; earlier this year Prime Minister Rishi Sunak set out an ASB ‘action plan’. Hammersmith & Fulham Leader Stephen Cowan – a Labour councillor has said: ‘We have taken the view that keeping people safe is always our first priority’.

Both main political parties at least speak of acting on ASB because it affects people of all classes, and not only because in London the rich (and sometimes extremely rich) live relatively close to the poor and deprived. Thus many PSPOs are against dog fouling, and Hammersmith & Fulham like other London boroughs has set a four-dogs-at-a-time limit for (paid ‘professional’) dog walkers after an attack by a dog left passers-by injured.

While aggressive and out of control dogs and dog muck annoys the well-off while they jog in a park, rich and poor alike may feel unsafe as a result of drug dealing on their street; and used syringes left around. Like the man I lunched with. He said he had reported it to police. The word he used to describe the police was striking, explaining how the authorities are overwhelmed by the sheer number of reports, and how supply and demand for illegal drugs is beyond any lever that the criminal justice system can pull: “Defeated.”

Photo by Mark Rowe: on-street graffiti, Old Ford Road, east London.

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