Stephen Beardsley has the handshake of a bouncer and the CV of a mercenary. He served in a tank crew in the first Gulf War, fought off Kalashnikov-toting Somali pirates as they raided transporter ships in the Indian Ocean, and was dubbed "Big Steve" by tabloid paps as a bodyguard for Wonderbra model Sophie Anderton.
Now, he's bringing that experience to the mean streets of Frinton-on-Sea, forming a private police force to protect the terrified residents in a seaside town that the regular police have virtually left at the mercy of crime.
Before Steve and his private security team turned up there was only the thinnest of blue lines protecting Frinton. With police cuts taking their toll, the town's nearest police station is set to close. Frintonians are not taking any chances on the tsunami of criminality that could hypothetically hit at any moment. Araura Global Solutions (AGS) is stepping into the vacuum.
It may be a sensible decision under budgetary stress for the police not to concentrate resources on an area with as little crime as Frinton. In September of this year there were only 34 reported crimes, while nearby Clacton witnessed nearly ten times that number. But the relative absence of crime hasn't stopped a few hundred of Frinton's residents paying AGS £2 a week to patrol the neighbourhood in their battenberg 4x4s.
When I visited Steve to join one of his nightly patrols, he was sure to bat off suggestions that he runs an unaccountable racket of hired vigilantes. "There's only one law out there and that's the police," he said, adding that the cuts to the UK's police forces are "tragic".
He said he opts for a calm, consensual policing style – maintaining a preventative presence and talking sense into trouble makers rather than beating it into them. "If you go in there thinking you're Charlie Big Bananas, you're in for a world of shit," he told me. As such, "it can be pretty boring", he admitted. Really? So not like The Bill then? "It's more like Last of the Summer Wine."
AGS are hoping to get accredited by the Community Safety Accreditation Scheme, which will mean the Home Office granting them some pseudo-police powers like confiscating fags from kids or taking the name and address of someone acting in an anti-social manner. For now, they're limited to citizen's arrests and trying to look as much like real cops as possible.
Many communities would be delighted to see the back of the police – the criminal community, for one. But also young people from ethnic minorities communities sick of stop and searches; young people who like congregating in public spaces; the friends and families of over 1,500 people who have died in police custody since 1990; protesters who don't like being hospitalised; or just people who don't like getting beaten up.
So what kind of community would be so horrified by the absence of police that they would pay to bolster them with their own private A-Team?
On the way to Steve's office, a taxi driver had offered a clue: "Frinton? It's OK if you don't mind walking around with your nose in the air. If you're not from Frinton, they think you're a different class." He then told me a story about a driver who got pulled over by the police without insurance. Apparently her response was, "I'm a Frintonian" and that said she never left the area anyway, so why bother with insurance? "They think they're above the law."
Driving along Frinton's Second Avenue – all faux Tudor mansions with massive driveways and a golf club at the end – where Steve has a lot of customers, it's not hard to see how the place could earn a reputation for snobbery. It's the well-to-do neighbour of the somewhat down-at-heel Clacton-on-Sea, and there's an us-and-them feel between the two. The Mail put the desire for private police down to Frinton being "too old and white for our politicians to care about".
Last year when I visited nearby Jaywick, the kind of place Channel 5 makes poverty porn about, it was a source of outrage that £500,000 had been spent on state of the art public toilets in Frinton. A proposal to open a kebab shop caused a storm of protest, which sounds a lot like something out of Keeping Up Appearances. Aldi was met with a similar reception.
At a convenience shop I asked a customer, local business owner Nicola O'Brian, for her thoughts. She was less than happy. "I think it's taking money from the old population and feeding on their fears," she said. "A friend of mine, who's an elderly neighbour, came round and told me over a cup of tea that these guys had knocked on the door saying, 'Would you like to pay £2 a week on the security vans?' She said, 'How do we know who's paying towards this? I pay my taxes – why should I pay an extra £2 a week in one of the safest towns in the country?'"
When she said they don't have any real power anyway, shop worker Jay interjected. "But if you pay for them, they give you a special number," he said. "You can ring them up and they'll be here in five minutes. I had a break-in, two guys. In two minutes, they was here."
Down the road, David – the owner of Jade, a Chinese restaurant – was equally impressed. He recounted an altercation: "A young fellow came in after hours – about 12-ish – and demanded a few drinks." He got chucked out. "He was having none of it so he went outside and picked up a cast iron trough, picked it up..."
Did it go through the window?
"No, it bounced off and cut his leg. Then Steve turned up. Steve turned up in two minutes. Literally two minutes – three cars turned up. You can't beat that, can you?" The guy was citizen's arrested until the real cops showed.
Despite the hero-stories at shops that Steve guided us to, I couldn't help thinking that what I was really seeing was the commodification of fear. Nationally, crime has been in a long-term decline for 20 years, and Steve reckons Frinton is "probably the lowest crime area in Essex". It's a point the AGS boss was clearly aware of; as we talked, he would often insist that he's not whipping up fear, and that what AGS does is giving "peace of mind" to local residents.
Most of all, Steve was keen to hype the community aspect of his operation. They'll knock on your door to let you know if you left your lights running. They help confused old people find where they parked their car, whether or not they're customers. They plan to bring people UHT milk if it snows.
"I enjoy helping people," said Steve, sounding pretty genuine. When the regular police was formed in the 19th Century – against significant opposition – the community aspect of their work was highlighted to obscure their true function: protecting the scared rich from the angry plebs.
Every so often, I'd catch a glimpse of what appeared to be a sincere belief that we live in a very dark and scary world. "You can't have too many ears to the ground, can you? You'll never have enough," said Steve. He told me about one of his customers who has a lock on every single door in her house. "She locks them every night, like a ritual." I asked if she had been a victim of crime. "Erm, I don't think she had, actually."
It's worth pointing out here that I don't think Steve is full of shit. He was hospitable throughout and seemed to believe what he was saying. He kind of reminded me from Mike Watt in Spaced.
On the seafront, a couple were getting a blast of wind and checking out the newly landscaped beach, which runs from Clacton to Frinton (which is nicely done, by the way). I asked Gary Roberts what he thought of the scheme. "People are fed fear on a daily basis, because they read the local newspapers," he said. "A lot of it's self-inflicted. It's a good service and it is needed, because people do have that fear, because they're old and they're meant to have it. Old people are never secure. They live in fear. At the end of the day, it will do the public a world of good anyway."
It would be easy to write off this early foray into private policing in the UK as a fad for the old and the afraid. But with AGS planning to expand – from nearby Holland-on-Sea, to London, to Carlisle – it's probably more accurate to see the people of Frinton as the early adopters, normalising the idea for everyone else. £2 a week may seem small fry, but this little town in Essex is dipping its toe into a booming global industry worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
In South Africa, private security forces, sometimes armed with dogs and automatic rifles, are more numerous than the army and police combined. In an unequal, crime fearing society, how long is it until every curtain-twitching town has its own squad of hired goons occupying the streets? Maybe the world is scarier than I thought.
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