Notes from the Field

From Bangladesh: Building Trust between the Bangladeshi People & Police

October 31, 2007

Nine months after a military-backed Caretaker Government assumed power in Bangladesh after the cancellation of parliamentary elections, the tireless cycle rickshaw drivers that navigate the traffic-snarled streets of Dhaka are adjusting to the “new” rules of the road. These new rules are, in fact, the old rules that are now being enforced more strictly and consistently by the Bangladesh Police.

Improved traffic management is part of a larger effort to reform the Bangladesh police, until recently rated by citizens as among the most corrupt public agencies. Bangladesh’s centralized national police force was used by successive elected governments to advance grand corruption, cover up violent crimes and allow political intimidation. The Caretaker Government’s determined anti-corruption drive has generated months of newspaper headlines highlighting the crimes of senior political leaders, and numerous accounts of telephone calls ordering police to halt investigations and release prime suspects. Political interference in law enforcement by past administrations contributed to an atmosphere of fear among ordinary citizens and acts of impunity among political power brokers.

While the Caretaker Government’s high-profile campaign has been effective in containing the worst excesses of corruption involving the police, it will take time to restore citizen trust. Many crime victims only seek police assistance after exhausting all alternative options.

In this working environment, The Asia Foundation’s pilot Community-Oriented Policing (COP) program aims to reduce petty corruption, reduce crime, restore trust in police, and improve communication and cooperation between communities and the local police that serve them. It does this through community policing forums (CPFs) facilitated by local NGO partners that regularly bring the local police together with community leaders, including local government officials, teachers, businesspersons, religious leaders, farmers, and women’s organizers. Developed through a methodical process of consultations with police and community members, empirical research on community-police relations and facilitation by NGOs that have a deep understanding of community social dynamics, the CPFs facilitate community-police dialogue and collaboration. In just two years, the forums have become increasingly autonomous.

The results of the COP program have been strikingly positive. Crimes of public concern including youth drug addiction, petty corruption, and harassment of women have declined. Local police officials are now a visible presence in communities and participate in community events. CPF members have introduced their own innovations such as community information booths, alternative dispute resolution committees, and awareness programs for students. COP achievements have attracted the interest and attention of senior police officials.

While high-level administrative and political support for community policing has been an objective of The Asia Foundation’s programs from the start, a recently announced national police initiative underlines the challenges of securing meaningful community involvement. Newspaper reports and informal police comments indicate that some of the community policing groups established in a matter of weeks by police and local government officials are at risk of interference by local elites or criminal elements. While comparatively time and labor intensive, the methodical bottom-up approach followed by the Foundation’s COP program in establishing CPFs, selecting forum members, and cultivating community acceptance and engagement is central to the success of community policing initiatives and an essential complement to the high-level institutional initiatives of police.

Now that the COP model has proven to be effective at a local level, The Asia Foundation is seeking opportunities to work with the Bangladesh Police to apply its lessons to the national level initiative. Development experts agree that “human security” is essential for any country’s development. Expansion of the COP program would improve human security; increasing trust and cooperation between the Bangladeshi people and their police, and allowing everyday Bangladeshis to take greater advantage of economic opportunities and participate more freely in a democratic society.

Jerome Sayre is the Deputy Country Representative for The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh.

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