Significant developments in our understandings of, and thinking about, “policing” have occurred in the late 20th and early 21st centuries. These have been reflected in redefinitions of the words “police” and “policing” that scholars use when writing about it. By the middle of the 19th century the word "police" in English was understood to refer to the state-sponsored institution responsible for order maintenance, crime control, and law enforcement, and its officers; and the word policing referred to what its officers did to achieve these objectives. Police were typically referred to as “the police,” indicating that they uniquely performed this role. But in the decades after the Second World War, scholars and consultants brought the world’s attention to a dramatic growth in nonstate institutions that were fulfilling similar roles; they were referred to as “private security.”
Research revealed that private security were undertaking the same tasks and responsibilities as the police were but doing so in different ways, with different objectives, and different means. They more often saw their role as loss prevention—rather than crime control—and did not see presenting offenders before the criminal justice system as a good way to achieve that. Rather, they developed ways of achieving order and preventing losses that drew on the power of their clients—for instance to exclude troublemakers from their property—rather than the kinds of legal powers relied on by the police, which they typically did not have anyway. Policing scholars began to talk of “private police” and “private policing.” What is more, research revealed that within a couple of decades of the end of the Second World War, private security personnel had come to outnumber public police personnel, in some countries by as much as 3 to 1. It also became apparent that even within government there was an increasing number of organizations and personnel, other than “the police,” such as customs officials, tax inspectors, and so forth, who could also be considered to be doing policing. Many police researchers redefined themselves as policing researchers, interested in studying all these different public and private organizations and personnel who seemed to be doing policing, and what their relationships with each other were.
By the 1990s, in light of these research findings, policing scholars began to talk about plural policing provision, rather than just about the relationships between “private security” and “the police.” A whole lot of new questions arose: Who is doing policing? What are the different ways of doing it? In whose interests is it being done? What are the implications of this for policing policy? How can policing provision be effectively governed given its prolific diversity? How are developments like globalization and technological advances impacting the challenges faced by policing providers? And which providers are best placed to meet which of these challenges? And finally, is policing just about addressing human threats to safety and security ? What about threats to safety and security arising from natural disasters such as earthquakes, floods, tsunamis, and droughts, or other manifestations of climate change such as global warming? Or from pandemics and the like? Or from the development of artificial intelligence? In short, what do “policing” and policing provision mean in the 21st century? And how will we understand and think about them in the future? Certainly not as we understood them in the middle of the 20th century.