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Timor-Leste’s National Police Prioritize Crime Prevention through Community Policing for 2017 Elections

July 13, 2016

By Sarah Dewhurst

Timor-Leste, the half-island nation nestled between Indonesia and Australia, is preparing for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2017, the fourth round of elections since the brutal withdrawal by Indonesian occupation forces in 1999. Today, Timor-Leste is widely considered a stable and peaceful country. But most who know the country well admit that this can change rapidly if the focus on consensus and reconciliation shifts even slightly.

As Timor-Leste heads into 2017 elections, efforts to prevent crime through community policing are increasingly critical.

As Timor-Leste heads into 2017 elections, efforts to prevent crime through community policing are increasingly critical. Above, a suco police officer speaks with a community member. Photo/Bernadino Soares

As the country prepares for elections, there is already a buzz in the air – political party flags are held aloft by passengers on the backs of motorcycles, popular leaders’ faces appear on t-shirts, and truck loads of people frequently attend festival-like political rallies around the country. However, for a nation still reeling from a deep mistrust of uniformed forces, maintaining peace and order has been and will remain at the forefront of domestic and international policy agendas, particularly so during election time.

Since 2009, the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) has trialled several approaches to community policing under supervision of the United Nations Police; however, it was not until 2014, after the withdrawal of the last UN peacekeeping mission, that the PNTL developed its own community policing model. The country’s new community-oriented approach to policing is gradually replacing the military model used during the Indonesian occupation. While the community approach is gaining traction, absent guidance from international peacekeeping forces, it will no doubt be put to the test during elections which are likely to be fervently contested.

The PNTL budget is under multiple pressures for next year’s election period. Not unlike elsewhere, budget appropriations for an election year are bound to be particularly protracted and complicated as politicians vie for relevance and constituent support. The process, however, is even more important in a country with limited resources and a state budget that is not known to prioritize human over capital development. Given these circumstances, it is all the more encouraging to see some indicators of evidence-based decision making in the 2017 state budget.

One example is from the General Commander of the PNTL, who has explicitly prioritized crime prevention activities in his 2017 budget submission. In 14 years of independence, this is the first time that the PNTL has prioritized itemized budgeting for crime prevention initiatives such as: Community Policing Councils, Municipal Security Committees, and Women’s Representative Security Meetings. Such forums, which The Asia Foundation has supported over the last six years, are designed to bring together community leaders and police to identify security risks facing communities and together design strategies to prevent crime and conflict. During the election period these forums may apply for small grants to support civic education on electoral processes, as well as inter-party dialogue and commitments to codes of conduct for the upcoming campaigns.

To put this in perspective, this commitment by the PNTL to include specific, itemized community policing funds, if approved, will represent a quadrupling of the allocation of funding from $78,000 in 2016 to over $300,000 for 2017. While this is still only a fraction of the overall PNTL budget, it represents the type of service provision that is perhaps most tangible to citizens. This will enable the PNTL to take full leadership and responsibility for these community policing structures for the future.

This policy decision comes on the back of data demonstrating the increasing effectiveness of community policing as a policing strategy for Timor-Leste. The Asia Foundation’s new survey on community police perceptions shows increased perceptions of security in communities. The survey data shows that levels of community concern about their safety has decreased (see Figure 1). This laudable achievement tracks overall improvements in national stability in Timor-Leste, as well as PNTL’s efforts in increased engagement with communities and decentralization of police officers to the suco (village) level.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The surveys have confirmed the PNTL’s perception that community policing is working in Timor-Leste to prevent crime and improve community trust in the police. Community trust is sky high at 99 percent (see Figure 2), notwithstanding the caveats of continuing concerns over PNTL abuses and despite only 18 percent of respondents having contacted PNTL for assistance in the last year. This puts pressure on the PNTL to maintain these rates of trust as they increase their interactions with citizens over coming years.

Figure 2

Figure 2

While most civil cases and disputes are still resolved by community leaders – reducing the burden on the formal justice system – the PNTL is playing an increasing role, and were present at three out of five of successful community resolutions. The general public’s perception that citizens and police were working together (see Figure 3) to address security problems in their community increased markedly to 84 percent in 2015. This signifies a dramatic shift in the role that the PNTL is playing in society.

Figure 3

Figure 3

There is certainly more work to be done to improve security, with domestic violence, and land disputes being of highest concern to communities. The survey reveals that strengthening the PNTL’s approach to community policing is not only about the PNTL being close to communities; it also represents a more fundamental shift in the way that the PNTL is beginning to operate (see Figure 4), focusing attention on the prevention of rather than reaction to crimes. Improved training, operating procedures, and reporting processes will enable PNTL officers to better navigate their operational choices between prevention and judicial process.

Figure 4

Figure 4

The state has been investing increasing resources in community policing over recent years and the recent decision to support the community-based crime prevention forums represents their continuing commitment and belief in the importance of community policing as the core philosophy of the PNTL. As the country heads into a contentious election, this community-level support will be critical to maintaining security and ensuring peaceful elections.

The Survey of Community-Police Perceptions in Timor-Leste 2015 was supported by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Australian Federal Police.

Sarah Dewhurst is a program manager for The Asia Foundation in Timor-Leste. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and not those of The Asia Foundation or its funders.

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