D. Churchill u.a. (Hrsg.): Private Security and the Modern State

Private Security and the Modern State. Historical and Comparative Perspectives

Churchill, David; Janiewski, Dolores; Leloup, Pieter
Routledge SOLON Explorations in Crime and Criminal Justice Histories
London 2020: Routledge
Anzahl Seiten
270 S.
£ 125.00; € 144,75
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Marcus Böick, Historisches Institut, Ruhr-Universität Bochum

Recently, two spectacular thefts infuriated the German public and gained international media attention. In a nightly coup in early 2017, a 100-kilogram golden coin named “Big Maple Leaf” was purloined from the famous Bode Museum in Berlin. More than two years later, at the end of 2019, another burglary was committed during the early morning hours in Dresden’s world-famous “Green Vault” (“Grünes Gewölbe”), with some invaluable pieces of the Saxon crown jewels being stolen. Interestingly, the immediate public uproar – the Saxonian Prime Minister bemoaned an unreplaceable “loss” of “cultural identity” – was not mainly focused on then still unknown thieves or criminal gangs. Many observers also criticized the apparent lack of security inside the public museums: How was it possible that these invaluable artifacts had been guarded in such a poor way – with unaware or overstrained guardsmen and old fashioned or non-functioning alarm- or CCTV-systems? Had the museums (or the state owning them) really done enough to protect their displayed riches? Could their lack of providing a proper security infrastructure be interpreted as a form of negligence or even complicity?[1]

One and a half centuries earlier, the “Cornhill Burglary” also gained considerable public attention in the United Kingdom and its quickly expanding mass media, as the co-editor of the volume under review here, David Churchill describes in his paper. In February 1865, right in the center of the City of London, the jewelry of John Walker was targeted by thieves that secretly had entered the compound from a neighboring shop during the weekend. In nearly two days of lockpicking work, they were able to crack open a special safe, designed by the company “Milner and Son”, and get away with jewels worth 6,000 pounds. As Churchill shows convincingly, this spectacular heist – that was widely seen as a “culmination of a series of high-profile burglaries” (p. 177) in the very heart of the capital of the British Empire – led to a fervent public debate about securing private property. In other words: “Who was responsible?” The City Police for not properly raising up against a quickly growing tide of professionalized crimes with especially burglary seen as a “signal” offense? The private security company that boldly advertised their safes as the “strongest” ones on earth? Or should John Walker himself be blamed, the wealthy shop owner, who did not show the required level of awareness in protecting his own private property by carelessly and exclusively relying on the installed security technology? This public struggle about conflicting collective or individual “responsibilities” leads Churchill right to the core of this edited volume by discussing the “complex relationship […] [forged between, M. B.] private security, public policing and individual precaution.” (p. 189) In this sense, the “Cornhill Burglary” of 1865 was a fierce debate about self-responsibility and individual risk-management long before “neoliberal” writers and politicians started to emphasize this notion in the second half of the 20th century.

In their concise introduction, the editors David Churchill, Dolores Janiewski and Pieter Leloup underline their intention to explore new perspectives on the history of security in the modern state and its conceptual “core”: “Rather than assuming a secure state-based monopoly over the governance of crime, disorder, personal security and risk (preceding the contemporary era of plurality, commercialization and securitization)” their book aims to “rethink that assumption and replacing it with a more historically informed interpretation.” (p. 3) By picking up interdisciplinary approaches from a broad range of mostly English or American authors coming from an intersection of history, sociology and criminology, the editors intend to focus on the “historical development of private security firms” that have emerged since the mid-19th century. These commercialized security companies “stemmed ultimately from the right of owners to protect their property” beyond the state and its quickly expanding police forces. Thus, Churchill, Janiewski and Leloup aim to explore the emergence of a security field that saw “private detectives, private guards, voluntary associations, vigilance committees, factory police and moral reform associations” acting especially in the highly capitalist societies of the United States and the United Kingdom. To this end, they conceptualize the well-known “public-private distinction” in its “heuristic value as a relational concept” – a transforming, dynamic and open relationship between different state, commercial, social or individual actors and forms of the production, provision and perception of security and safety.

To stand up to this ambitious research agenda, the twelve papers of this volume are structured in three chapters. The first part focuses on “Security regimes in national context”, while the second one is dealing with “Techniques and cultures” and the third examines the relationship “between public and private security”. Since it is impossible to present all the enriching papers, I want to focus on some examples that underline the broad range of topics and approaches gathered in this volume: Jacqueline E. Ross compares the different developments of “undercover policing” in the US and France during the 19th century by focusing on the prominent security entrepreneurs and talented self-myth constructors Eugène Vidocq and Allan Pinkerton. Wilbur Miller analyses the astonishing merger of “revolutionary and frontier ideology” into a “unique American gun culture” during the 19th century in connection “with associated ideals of honour and masculinity.” (p. 42) Pieter Leloup shifts his attention to 20th-century Europe by illustrating the discourses connected to the rise of private security in Belgium from 1934 until 1990, continuously oscillating between “co-operation” and “competition.” The paper by Adam White is focused on the complicated relationship between police and private security firms in Great Britain during the 1960s. In another striking analysis, Dolores Janiewski and Simon Judkins demonstrate the “fluid” development of private-public security networks in California from 1917 until the early 1950s that represented a vast system of public-private security partnerships deeply rooted in local communities driven by different waves of anti-communism.

The book mainly focuses on case studies situated within the US (with fice contributions) and the United Kingdom (with six papers), at the same time representing the quite meagre state of the art of historical research on private security beyond the Anglo-Saxon world – with just three studies focusing on continental Europe. Most of the gathered texts are settled in an interdisciplinary scientific setting, analyzing a broad variety of source material by combining different approaches from history, sociology, anthropology, and criminology on the levels of discourses as well as practices in a refreshingly pragmatic way: it is their shared focus on security production beyond the state that convincingly binds them together. But this broad endeavor seems to be, as the editors themselves underline in their conclusion, more of a starting point for future research. The presented different national “cases” seem to be initial and more experimental explorations presenting (often very entertaining) evidence and insights in an anecdotal fashion. Put together, the texts are convincingly able to “highlight wide disparities in the clams of specific states to maintain a monopoly of legitimate force” as well as the “dynamics of cooperation, competition and conflict between state policing systems and private security provision, the development of public-private security partnerships and the recognition of individual rights and responsibilities to protect oneself.” (p. 10)

All in all, the texts in this highly recommendable volume might not be able to prevent spectacular jewelry thefts like in Imperial London or present-day Berlin in the future. But the further analysis of private security beyond the modern state seen as a broad concept might help us to (legally) discover some hidden scientific gems in a mostly still unchartered field. Three suggestions might help to equip our toolbox even further for future research: First, the different national cases should be debated comparatively in their transnational or even global contexts, connections, and references, by addressing private security in various regional, social, and cultural settings (especially also beyond Northern America or Continental Europe). Second, also the impact or the influences of historical developments on the field of private security in mid- or longer terms (like political changes or wars, economic crises, technological innovations, or cultural transformations) should be put in consideration systematically, especially when it comes to “pre-modern” settings without a strong central state. And third, an overarching theme that could be critically assessed might be the notion of private security as a specific and thus highly disputed business model that is bringing commercial capitalism, political state-building as well as collective or individual social self-organization very closely together – may it happen in conflict or in cooperation.[2]

[1] Berlin mystery attack targets 70 museum artefacts, in: BBC World News, 21.10.2020, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-54626632 (27.01.2021).
[2] Carola Westermeier / Horst Carl (eds.), Sicherheitsakteure. Epochenübergreifende Perspektiven zu Praxisformen und Versicherheitlichung, Baden-Baden 2018.