Entrepreneurial policing? International policing challenges

The export of policing is a global growth industry in which the UK plays a major role. Recent years have seen the proliferation of private security company involvement in international policing, often staffed by former UK police officers.

Graham Ellison Georgina Sinclair
8 August 2013

The UK Police have a long history of providing overseas policing. More so than any other European nation, the UK has exported its policing styles internationally. According to the UK government's cross-departmental Stabilisation Unit:

"The UK police have a worldwide reputation for excellence and expertise in delivering effective policing. Their skills and experience enable the UK Government to provide international policing assistance to help promote stability and support peace operations overseas."

From the early part of the nineteenth century ‘British’ policing travelled from the metropole throughout the empire and commonwealth employing two broad based approaches: a so-called civil/Metropolitan style, and a colonial/Irish style. In practice, however, a cross fertilisation occurred between these policing models. This contributed not only to these earlier international experiences but also to the emergence of professional policing in Britain itself which was to draw upon both facets.

Following the Second World War, the international modus operandi of the UK police changed with the advent of multi-lateral policing approaches. Firstly with the Allied Control Commission in Germany and Italy (in parallel with the military), and later with early United Nations led missions, such as the ‘Operation des Nations Unies au Congo’ (ONUC, 1960-1964). With an emerging Cold War backdrop the different strands of UK policing - the civil and the colonial styles – were exported around the world. Requests to the UK government included the provision of quasi-military Northern Irish policing expertise (from the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC)) during the Greek civil war (1946-49). Metropolitan Police expertise (civil) was offered to Columbia in the 1950s. Former colonial police Special Branch officers were dispatched to South Vietnam during the 1960s to assist the United States.[1]

International policing

The post Cold War period ushered in a ‘new’ period of UN interventions supported by a growing international community that included the UK. British policing became a valuable commodity to be traded on the international market.

The ‘gold rush’ of international policing missions saw comparatively large cohorts of UK police deployed to the Balkans from the mid 1990s albeit primarily in a training, mentoring and advisory capacity. However, following concerns about the ineffectual nature of this approach the subsequent United Nations peacekeeping mission to Kosovo (1999) saw the provision of executive authority policing (carrying out full policing functions including an armed capacity). In this situation both RUC – Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and Ministry of Defence Police (MDP) officers were deployed in support of the civilian administration. Their selection was based on the requirement for particular skills including public order policing and an armed capability, and in the case of the RUC, an experience of policing divided societies.

The expertise gained from executive authority missions (and civilian policing missions) was then transferred to Iraq and to Afghanistan where an international mission experience of fragile and post-conflict states was needed. However from 2001, many of these RUC-PSNI officers took early retirement following the police reform process in Northern Ireland. Many were actively recruited into the private security sector.

The counter-terrorism experiences gained by many of these former police officers has been perceived of high value by the corporate sector in Iraq and Afghanistan. Large numbers have found gainful employment there in the past decade as consultants and advisors particularly around global counter-terrorism strategies.[2] Afghanistan has been notable for the shrinkage of UK state sector involvement (state personnel within UN, NATO and EU-led missions) where currently there are no more than 20 serving UK police officers deployed. International policing in Afghanistan (and from a wider global perspective) has dominated the growth of mainly US and British private security firms employing former UK police.

In an often marked contrast to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) conflict-related and security driven policing assistance in Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan, there has been an increased demand for UK police (serving and retired officers) to support broader security and access to justice programmes promoted by the Department for International Development (DfID) and its commitment to global development objectives.

These activities have been supported by the cross-departmental Stabilisation Unit, which supplies both serving and retired officers within a range of international policing missions. DfID’s aim is more often than not to promote ‘soft power’ by fusing development objectives with security sector reform and the promotion of civil, community-oriented styles of policing drawn from the Metropolitan model. This delivery of securitised and/or community forms of policing reflect the broader tensions between UK government departments but also policing more generally (i.e. between coercion and service).

With the provision of overseas policing services rapidly dwarfed by the corporate security market, international policing is beset by other challenges. There currently exists no official international policing policy that crosses government departments such as the Home Office, FCO, DfID, and Ministry of Defence, and that involves the UK police, encompassing both national security and policing strategies. Whilst the Strategic Defence and Security Review (2010) has determined the direction of national security and the National Security Council has decided on the future positioning of the armed forces there remains no clear guidance on policing. This lack of protocol and inadequate mapping of what constitutes international policing has resulted in fragmented approaches to service delivery with overlap and tension occurring both within government and between the state and private security sectors.

An expanding industry

The overseas private security industry is a huge growth area for the UK economy. This sector is now valued at £1 billion and offers policing and security services across the globe. The commercial security market has penetrated the international policing community and encompasses not only private security companies but an increasing range of ad hoc police advisors and mentors to overseas governments.

Further complexity comes not only from the different types of private security companies (PSCs) but also the wide range of services being offered to clients - including governments, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), international organisations like the UN, and commercial firms more generally. Broadly, private security companies (for example: Aegis Defence Services, Control Risk, Armour Group Security and Corinthian Protection International) provide operational or tactical and logistical support; security and/or policing services and military advice and training across the world. In addition to this expanding sector, other traditionally non-security institutions (including institutions that offer financial risk management and corporate governance) now offer elements of security capacity and capability-building within developing, post-conflict and fragile states.

Despite being closely associated with the world of private security and military services for almost five decades, successive UK governments have shown little appetite to regulate the sector. In 2002, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee put forward a green paper ‘Private Military Companies’ outlining legislative options for "the control of private military companies which operate out of the UK" through regulation which would include licensing and registration procedures.  In practice, however, these proposals have left much regulation in the hands of the industry itself.

Acknowledging that the private security industry was becoming tainted by a number of scandals, the British Association of Private Security Companies (BAPSC) was founded in 2005. BAPSC campaigns to raise standards across the sector but in ways that favour a “hands off” self-regulatory approach. BAPSC members are required in theory to operate to strict codes of practice and rules of engagement, and, comply fully with the rules and principles of international humanitarian law and human rights law. An International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers was established in October 2010. In practice, however, the lack of official regulation will fail to prevent the occurrence of a possible future ‘Blackwater’ incident. Indeed, the intermeshing of state and corporate interests not to mention the revolving door of personnel means that there is too much vested in maintaining the status quo and official regulation will be a long time in the offing.

Ample opportunities

The unrest that developed across the Middle East and North Africa from December 2010 – to become known as the Arab Spring - has created new markets for international development of which security sector reform is seen as a key dimension. Due to historic links the Middle East has become a highly lucrative market for the provision of policing services. Senior former police officers move seamlessly from the state to the corporate policing world via the so-called ‘revolving door’.

The United Arab Emirates (UAE) have ‘recruited’ former senior UK police officers as police and strategy advisors to the Interior Ministry, and there is a large pool of former UK police operating as strategy advisors in Abu Dhabi. In addition, former members of the RUC-PSNI now provide 'community policing services', where the police engage with the community about policing priorities and solutions, and as Warrant Officers (or police constables) to the Abu Dhabi Police.

Furthermore a growing number of ex-police now provide ad hoc training and consultancy services within the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Qatar (the forthcoming World Cup has provided ample opportunities). Former senior UK police have also been recruited as government advisors to both the Bahrain and Qatar governments. This includes John Yates, the former Assistant Commissioner in the London Metropolitan Police who headed up the MPS Special Inquiry Squad. Yates resigned in July 2011 over criticism of the July 2009 review carried out of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Following his resignation, Yates was recruited by the Bahrain government as a police advisor. Equally Sir Ronnie Flanagan is another who has joined this growing elite of former senior officers who have found fame and fortune within Middle Eastern government circles.

From the period of decolonisation through to the present day and the “Global War on Terror”, there has been a tendency to pay lip service to the adoption of civil policing styles, which have included human rights training and community policing. Increasingly, there has also been a demand for more militarised and securitised forms of policing, including public order management, high-end intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities. Often it is this latter dimension that has been the principal driver of international policing, both officially, but more importantly unofficially, via a dense network of security consultants and advisors.

Yet the ease with which there has been a ‘gold rush’ in corporate and private sector policing and its related activities has raised concerns. For ACPO and other senior British police these concerns centre upon the validity of policing services offered and whether there will be longer term reputational damage to UK policing from a global perspective. There are critical lessons to be learnt from the ease with which UK policing has been outsourced. In the longer term this may prove detrimental not only to national policing values but also questions of national security.


[1] Sinclair, G. (2006) At the end of the line: Colonial policing and the imperial endgame. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

[2] Sinclair, G. (2012) ‘Exporting the UK Police Brand: The RUC-PSNI and the International Policing Agenda’ Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice. Advance Access:;

Ellison, G. & O’Reilly, C. (2008a) ‘From Empire to Iraq and the “War on Terror”: The transplantation and commodification of the (Northern) Irish Policing Experience, Police Quarterly, 11 (4) Dec. 395-426.



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