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Improving local security through better police-community relations

23 October 2014 - Kloe Tricot O'Farrell

In Bangladesh, Nepal, South Sudan, and Tajikistan, Saferworld has established community security programmes that focus on building trusting relationships between communities and security providers. Kloe Tricot O'Farrell highlights how this approach is enabling them to address together the causes, consequences, and risks of conflict and insecurity, and find solutions to strengthen the conditions for sustainable peace.

Communication and trust are key to ensuring that relationships are constructive and sustainable. This is particularly important for police–community relations in contexts affected by conflict and insecurity where distrust and misunderstanding can aggravate existing tensions. Where these relations are poor or non-existent, or even the cause of insecurity itself, people can be compelled to seek alternative sources of security and justice. Saferworld’s approach to community security highlights that both communities and security providers have come to see the value of having a safe space where communities can articulate their needs and concerns and where they can work in coordination with local authorities to identify appropriate responses.

For communities, on the one hand, it is often unusual to discuss sensitive safety and security issues with the police and authorities. This is particularly true for marginalised groups such as women, youths, and ethnic minorities. In many contexts, the police service is poor due to lack of training, professionalism or resources, and public trust is both absent and admittedly difficult to build. Here, communities and security providers tend to misunderstand each other’s motivations, capabilities, roles, and responsibilities, which risks resulting in each seeing the other as an obstacle to peace and security rather than a partner. Furthermore, a lack of mutual trust often undermines the interpretation and application of the rule of law that should theoretically enshrine security and justice norms but instead can be rendered ineffective. However, through trust-building processes, communities and security providers can develop relationships focused on joined up efforts to improve each other’s experiences of security and justice. Gradually, communities can become their own agents of change, and be empowered to hold their security providers to account.

For example in Kuajok, Warrap State, South Sudan a Community Security Working Group (CSWG), made up of diverse members representative of the community as a whole and established with Saferworld’s support, developed a crime and security incidents reporting process. Community members document incidents in reports, known as ‘counter’ or ‘green’ books, which they share on a weekly basis with the police. Through the counter books, the CSWG can hold the police to account and partake in decision-making. Indeed, these ledgers keep track of whether the police have responded to reported incidents, and the community can request updates on what actions have or will be taken when feedback has not been received.

For security providers on the other hand, improved relations with community members allow them to better understand the security issues faced by communities and involve them in the design and implementation of responses. In turn, these responses are locally owned, appropriate and more sustainable. Such good practice not only leads to better responses but also enhances the legitimacy of institutions and security providers.

In Tajikistan, despite progress under the Ministry of Interior’s internationally supported police reform process, which seeks to increase trust between police and communities through the promotion of community policing, most local police officers in isolated villages along the border with Kyrgyzstan were still not comfortable engaging with communities. This lead to a deterioration of their reputation as people felt local police lacked the skills, resources, and will to effectively respond to their problems. However, in the villages of Khoja Alo and Somonien in Isfara province along the border with Kyrgyzstan, Saferworld and its local partner have been supporting CSWGs to connect with local police and government officials. Over time, local police came to realise the value of interacting with communities and are now holding meetings on their own accord. Through regular meetings, they are able to inform communities on the general security situation in the area, update them on incidents and report on the results of their work, and brief them on new laws and legal procedures which affect them but of which they often are not aware. Overall, this has led to improved relationships with the police and a better understanding of respective roles and responsibilities.

In many contexts, poor policing is also linked to a lack of resources by police services. Community security processes can help to overcome these shortcomings in many ways. For example, in Nepal’s Eastern Terai, people felt that the police were difficult to communicate with, and when they were called they were slow to respond to incidents. Through CSWG-led consultations, it transpired that the police did not have the vehicles, communication equipment and decentralised stations necessary to patrol or rapidly respond. Consequently, community members decided to provide them with bicycles, mobile phones, and torches as well as a piece of land to establish a police post in a remote area.

Similarly, a better assessment of the context through engagement with members of the community can help police services direct scarce resources where they are most needed. Satkhira District in Bangladesh experienced significant political violence in the run-up to and during the January 2014 elections. In response the police arrested local youths who they thought were responsible for the violence. However, many of these arrests were indiscriminate, leading to innocent youth from inside the community being mistakenly arrested and detained. The CSWG, founded with Saferworld’s support, in 2013 decided to approach the local police with information about suspects – something they only had the confidence to do because of the relationship built up with the police over the previous year. In response, the police began regularly patrolling the areas mentioned by the community members to ascertain who was responsible for the violence. They realised that the community information had been correct and released the local youths they had detained.

It is clear that building trust and setting up appropriate channels for constructive police-community communication can contribute in some way to improving local governance and in turn improve state-society relations. But ultimately, the real benefits are for the people themselves. Improved police-community relations are crucial to ensuring that those who are directly affected by conflict and insecurity have the opportunity to influence decisions that can directly lead to safer communities and more fulfilling lives.

Kloe Tricot O'Farrell is EU Advocacy Officer.

Find out more about Saferworld's work on community security.

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Improved police-community relations are crucial to ensuring that those who are directly affected by conflict and insecurity have the opportunity to influence decisions that can directly lead to safer communities and more fulfilling lives.

Kloe Tricot O'Farrell