Regardless of the debates over the privatisation of police, it should be remembered that more and more forces are calling upon private security firms to assist them with their work.
Forensic analysis of blood, semen and saliva is now carried by private companies on behalf of police, as are examination of weapons, phones and computers. In the early 2000s some forces began outsourcing overnight and daytime security of scenes of crime, freeing up officers to continue their work rather than be stuck in a doorway for hours on end.
No-one would consider it unusual to see private security at the front of nightclubs and pubs, or even some late-night convenience stores, and in recent years many local councils have worked with High Street shops to provide private security to patrol shopping centres and evening and night-time economy areas.
Even in Plymouth we’ve all become accustomed to seeing PARC (Plymouth Against Retail Crime) around the town and during the reopening of pubs on July 4 this year after the first lockdown, they were brought into bolster the police presence around the Barbican area.
Police have become increasingly blunt in explaining that a decade of excessive budget cuts has led them to being stretched to breaking point and that some of the kinds of policing our parents and grandparents took for granted my not be something this or future generations can expect.
Even Devon and Cornwall Police‘s chief constable exclaimed as far back as 2015 that, despite the put-down of Theresa May, the then Home Secretary, he and his colleagues were not “crying wolf” and that as a chief constable “I can’t hold the line any longer”.
Within this environment small but agile firms like K9 Mobile Security have grown.
Jon Bennett is a easy-going Plymstock-raised lad who, like many others, had wanted to join the force. However, a leg injury in his late teens put paid to that and for a while he considered his options.
He said: “I left (Plymstock) school and went to City College with the intention of joining the police. Then I had a car accident, lost feeling in the top of my leg – nerve damage. That was it.
“So the next best thing was security. I got my SIA (Security Industry Authority – regulator of the UK’s private security industry) but then found no-one would give me a job, saying I was too young.
“So I did it myself. It was the best thing I ever did.”
Setting up the firm in 2009 he started with small contracts, gaining experience and training in dog handling, security measures, adding staff and expanding the roles he and his team – now 14 people – carry out for their clients.
However, unlike a lot of bosses, he still carries out the frontline work, patrolling night after night, keeping checks on properties and businesses who have called upon his firm to help them with their security problems.
PlymouthLive joined Jon, now 30, on a Saturday night patrol. Does he patrol regularly, we ask him?
“Oh 100 percent, I still go out and do my fair share,” said Jon. “I’m still on call every day. I love responding to calls. I used to work seven days a week, getting four or five hours sleep – I did that for a few years.
“There’s no point having a business if you’re not going to do it yourself.”
As we track from venue to venue Jon explains how having sub-contracted himself out to firms “up the line” he then landed a few contracts of his own, “then a bigger contract and then we went from strength to strength”.
“I’ve had to work really hard, but that’s what you have to do.”
He reached out to the National Association of Security Dog Users (Nasdu) who put him in contact with a local dog trainer to learn about working with dogs. His first dog – a German shepherd called Kita – was purchased in London and he trained with her.
Jon said: “She was my first so she was the special one. She’s retired now and I’m now working with Fendi.” Fendi’s an energetic 16-month old German shepherd and responds quickly to her master’s voice as we visit properties across Plymouth on an unexpectedly dry Saturday night.
“We look after around 100 sites throughout Plymouth and surrounding areas, like Saltash and Ivybridge – sometimes a customer will have four or five sites dotted about.”
Clients include properties belonging to an emergency service, children’s nurseries, car garages and car dealers, parcel distribution, plant nurseries, residential homes and housing associations.
Jon’s car is kitted out not unlike a police response vehicle. Along with the outside branding and red and spot lights on the roof there’s lights control on the dash, a dashcam, phone holders and even defibrillators.
As for personal kit, Jon himself admits to having fluorescent jacket, reflective top, bodyworn video, two-way-radio and even a stab vest.
He explains: “Up until recently I just used to wear a bodyworn camera but with all the stabbings cropping up across the region and especially up the line, that’s when I decided that I wanted everybody working for me to have them. There’s a recent report about a security guard that went with their dog on an alarm call and the guard and dog were both stabbed. I’ve got a responsibility to make sure my staff are safe and it’s a sensible precaution.”
Jon notes that if there’s a confirmed alarm – meaning someone is inside a property where they should not be – he or a member of his team working on patrol may well be there long before police and so there’s always a need for good communication.
He said: “We always have two on the road as a minimum, day or night, and we will generally have both respond if there are any confirmed calls.
“The bodycam helps if there’s any issues afterwards and the two-way radio is to make sure that people working are in touch with each other.”
Static sites will see security there up to 24 hours a day while others choose the road option, depending on what they prefer and how they want to work.
Jon said: “Some are happy to do anything, some prefer nights, others prefer days, some like the static posts, others don’t. I prefer the mobile patrols but I do static as well.”
Some of the checks during the night are quite straightforward. We left Plymstock at around 7pm and our first port of call was the former fire station next to the Broadway. Jon explains that while it was being dismantled youths were clambering all over it, so his firm was tasked with making sure it was secure. Now it’s down, the land is empty, with fencing around it, but while it’s barren it still needs checking on.
We’re then off to a large community hub in the North Prospect area to make sure alarms are set and working, doors and windows are shut and locked. From there we head to Barne Barton where a nursery managed by the Cabin Childcare Centres is now under the watchful gaze of K9 Mobile Security following a series of issues.
In November PlymouthLive reported how the property off Kit Hill Crescent had become the focus of youths who had begun entering the nursery garden, stealing items and throwing stones. Karen Lilley, director of the centres, revealed that she had brought Jon and his team in to help minimise the problem.
Jon said: “They had been having problems since around June onwards and we were asked to start patrols in the last few weeks. It was reported youngsters had been clambering on the roof of Barn Park Nursery but when I first arrived there was a large group hanging around the front of the building and in the park area.
“I sat in my car for a while, let them get used to me being there. Then they started to be inquisitive and came over to talk to me. I talked about why I was there, why we were employed, explained that we wanted to make sure they came to no harm and to safeguard the property.”
It’s now around 9pm and there are no youths – and the nearby Barn is closed, the nearby playpark, cycle track, all-weather football pitch is dark but for an occasional street lamp light. Two youngsters walk past, hoods up but they don’t look up.
Jon remarks that, since his initial encounter with the large group of youths, “we’ve not seen them so much”.
He added: “It’s about respect, for both kids and adults. I respect police because that’s how I was brought up, but I know not everyone does. I spoke to the youngsters politely, explained the harm they were doing, and that we would be patrolling, turning up every night. Since then they’ve been good as gold.”
As we drive off I ask Jon if the police return that respect with him.
He notes how some officers have been quite forthcoming in their views of private security like K9, while others consider private security as another element in the partnership between the police, the public and businesses.
Jon adds: “I know a few police officers. I did have problems when I started. Some would get a bee in their bonnet about us, but I spoke to an inspector and things calmed down. I had ones who they wanted to be sure I was genuine – that I wasn’t a burglar with a branded-up vehicle using it as a cover.
“When you look at door staff, PARC, they all have some level of licensing to do the job, but they have different roles. To be a doorman you kneed a different mentality than security patrols.”
By this stage we’re at Millbay‘s newest apartment development off Isambard Brunel Way and Soap Street. The large patch of grass is private land and the land owners have employed K9 Mobile Security to patrol the area.
Jon notes how, during the summer, the trendy new flats and park-like patch which overlooks Millbay quay – where the small yachts nestle beside the luxury yachts – had become an attractive spot for a large number of street drinkers, rough sleepers and addicts.
He said: “The street drinkers were setting up camp, crashing out on the benches in the gardens at Soap Street – there were even reports of them having sex on the benches right in front of all the new flats.
“We were told of tents going up on the grass, people cooking with disposable barbecues, people tombstoning into the water, fishermen late at night with cans of beer which they threw into the water. We found one street drinker completely drunk on one of the luxury yachts in the quay, claiming it was his. People were leaving used needles around the area.
“It’s actually private land and the landowners are trying to build the new apartments and sell them, so antisocial behaviour is not a selling point. We’ve also got the new OAP place being built nearby so understandably they shouldn’t have to face this.
“All of this was going on almost every single day during the summer. At one point we went from patrols to a static security site because it was every single day.”
As we walk around the quay Jon says he recognises the conundrum is that police move street drinkers and addicts causing antisocial behaviour from one place such as the Hoe and they would move to another – still causing antisocial behaviour. So in effect, the security patrols were moving them back again.
“It’s the same problems as with kids. Moving them on from one place just means they go somewhere else. What can they do? Where can they go?”
A short while later Jon is donning blue nitrile gloves. We’re at the rear of the former Millennium club in Union Street and he’s about to enter, but first he has to unlock the lock on the door and there is what looks like a large puddle on the step and up the door to the padlock.
He remarks that it’s probably caused by someone urinating up the door, hence the need for gloves. Fendi is again brought out from her cab and is keen as mustard to do some searching.
It’s very dark inside but for a few small lights, the shine from Jon’s head-torch and a couple of outside streetlights struggling to shine through high windows.
There’s very little inside – walls have been scraped back to concrete, the floor is bare, the auditorium looks like it has been stripped back to bare bones. There’s a splash of colour on a few doors and the large round ceiling display, but all told it has the appearance of a place that has been gutted by builders. Comparing what is left by old photos of the building in its heyday as a dance venue or even further back in its time as the Gaumont Palace cinema it’s hard to even recognise it in its current state.
Despite GOD TV’s pledge in 2013 to turn the Millennium club into a £7m conference and events club whatever work had been done on the building before it then pulled out due to spiralling costs appears to have been removed.
In October PlymouthLive reported how the venue had been bought thanks Stonehouse community interest company Nudge Community Builders with the hopes of turning it into commercial spaces and a potential music venue.
As we walk around the large building Jon highlights one of the issues such properties inevitably suffer – urban explorers. While they claim they never break into properties, merely use doors and windows that are already open, Jon is sceptical and explains that patrols include a search inside due to “urban explorers” getting into the Millennium not that long ago.
We return to the subject of his initial wish to join the police and whether he would now reconsider, having recovered from his former leg injury.
It’s clear Jon takes pride in his wish to keep people and places safe and see offenders caught and convicted, but he admits he loves what he does now – and as the boss of a successful firm, a constable’s pay would not match his current salary.
However, he is keen to stress it’s not all about the money.
Just a couple of weeks ago he spotted a car heading towards him in Crownhill, weaving all over the road. He began to follow the car, which eventually pulled over. He headed to the driver’s window, smelled the driver’s breath reeking of booze, removed the keys and called police. He offered up his dashcam and bodycam as evidence if it was need while the officers carried out a breathalyser test before hauling the suspected drink driver away.
Jon’s explanation as to why he took action is simple: “What could have happened if I hadn’t?”
Similarly he recalls another incident as he drove past the Toys R Us car park at night and heard a woman screaming, being yanked into a car before she was then punched as the car pulled away. Again, he called police as he tailed the car and alerted them to the details they would need. A short while later police pulled the car over to speak to the suspect and Jon continued his own patrols.
He said: “We’re just another set of eyes and ears. Is it wrong that if someone sees one of our cars and mistakes it for a police that they may stop doing something wrong?
“We’re all on the same side really, we’re all trying to stop a baddie and keep people safe.”
At a school in Whitleigh Fendi is roaming the grounds and field after we entered through locked gates. Play areas, small allotments, play equipment are all checked and gates are relocked before we head off.
Jon explains that he does weekly training with the young and lean German shepherd to make sure she’s ready for anything.
He proudly states his trainer “used to work with Devon and Cornwall Police – we train to the same standard”.
Fendi is training in searches, alerts, tracking and even defence “so that if someone comes at me she will defend.
“There has been incidents where someone has broken in to a place we’re covering and the police who attend don’t have a dog available. If we know there’s someone in there, but we don’t know where, our dog can assist. The police officers will take the lead if they have a dog.
“We train our dogs on and off the lead but we’re 100 per cent confident that we have control.
“We’ve had jobs where we are tasked to do crowd control – I’ve worked really big events up the line and we’ve been on perimeter patrol and then been brought in into the arena area.
“I did Volksfest a few years back and we’ve done large corporate events too with the dogs.”
We’re back travelling the highways and byways and Jon’s discussing the different contracts he now holds, incidents he’s attended. He highlights one role where his team spent “a month in Stonehouse sorting out a big antisocial behaviour issue they were having”.
His firm has been tasked to carry out traveller evictions for private landowners in Cornwall, while, during very bad weather, one client tasked Jon’s firm to deliver radiators and heaters to elderly residents so they had to hire used 4x4s to carry out the work. In addition to patrols and searches the firm has taken on over the last few years facilities management and during the Covid-19 lockdown with some organisations having to work from home, his staff were providing reception concierge services as well.
We’re now walking the extensive grounds of a large garden centre in the heart of the city as Jon discusses how he’s sometimes seen a solitary car parked in the large car park. In a tale which many response officers can recognise, he admits to double checking because sometimes it can be a desperate and distressed person inside – but other times it’s just a young couple desperate to get a few minutes of ‘us-time’ away from the prying eyes and suspicious ears of parents.
We continue westwards where K9 Mobile Security have a contract to patrol a high-rise property which houses elderly and vulnerable. We check small rubbish chute rooms on each of the many floors.
Residents had complained of finding addicts who had somehow got into the supposedly secure entrances to shoot up heroin in the tiny spaces behind the chutes, leaving their needles and foil behind – as well as vomit and blood. Ledges on the stairwell windows have also previously been dumping grounds for needles, so every floor is checked from the top down.
Jon’s phone is frequently ringing or making an assortment of noises, marking alerts and messages about locations and security measures. At one stage he spots an alarm – and a direct feed to a security camera – at a secure storage yard in the south of the city. We head off but unlike the police, there’s no blues and twos and no high-speed race through traffic to get to the location. He admits it’s one of the disadvantages security firms have to endure but we’re at the compound soon enough and he’s out with Fendi searching.
Within moments he spots a door slightly ajar and a cagey man emerges claiming to be “working on his bike”. It’s around 11pm and quite cold. While the compound has a 24-hour access, he’s reminded it’s not really for night-time repairs, just brief deliveries of items. In addition, Jon makes a pointed remark about the smell of a certain kind of smoke.
The man nervously puffs on a vape, as if it will change from the vanilla smell it gives off to a more herbal odour Jon noticed. A quick check with the client and the man is politely but firmly asked by Jon to leave the compound. The man appears desperately happy to vacate the compound and hurriedly trudges off through the electronically-powered gate.
I bid adieu to Jon and Fendi at around midnight, leaving him to his lunch and before he’s back out for another four or five hours of patrolling. As he said during the evening, there’s undoubtedly a place for private security firms, not least because there’s “a steady amount of business of people up to no good”.