Notes from the Field

Bringing Police and Communities Together in Post-War Sri Lanka

November 10, 2010

On a hot morning in early October, 25 local community members, police officials, and Grama Niladharis (village heads) crowded into the local conference room to discuss eight recent cases of crime and conflict concerning the community of Gampola in central Sri Lanka. These women and men, young and old, gathered for Gampola’s monthly community policing forum – a rare opportunity for Sri Lanka’s citizens to meet face-to-face with police officials to discuss issues of crime and conflict that have affected their communities.

Community Policing Forum in Sri Lanka

Gampola police officials and local village heads listen as community members voice concerns about crime and conflict in their communities.

Twenty-five years of civil conflict is now history for this island nation, but the legacy of war left a substantial disconnect between the Sri Lankan Police Service (SLPS) and the communities they serve. During the war, police were preoccupied with maintaining state security – fighting terrorism in the South and counter-insurgency operations in the North and East – as much as with regular policing functions. People lacked confidence in their police officers and were often afraid to approach the police with concerns about crime and conflict in their communities. The police still rank poorly in surveys comparing public trust in different state institutions, but senior police officers seem determined to change those perceptions. Now, with a new sense of normalcy and peace, a few intrepid civil society organizations and local police chiefs are trying to bridge the gap between citizens and police through new community policing practices.

In a 2009 survey conducted in Kandy District, approximately 90 percent of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim community members when asked said that the community and police can successfully work together on local security challenges. The study also showed that the community felt more positive, intimate interactions with the police – in addition to the more common interactions, such as vehicle checkpoints and police station reports – are needed to move forward.

Realizing that change is needed, the Inspector General of Police wants the police force to become a more professional and “people-friendly” service. The SLPS is thus keen to scale up community policing country-wide with the aim of establishing an ethos of public service and accountability toward community members, regardless of gender or ethnicity. In response, the police service join citizens at community-led forums to better understand crime incidents and conflict issues that communities face on a daily basis, like domestic violence and alcoholism.

Sri Lanka police

Senior police officers joined citizens at a recent forum in Gampola to better understand crime incidents and conflict issues in their communities.

Deputy Inspector General for Central Province Pujith Jayasundara, is one of Sri Lanka’s most important advocates of bringing the people and police closer together through community policing projects. “My mission is to help the police make the transition from war-policing to community-policing in order to enhance the security and safety of citizens in the district of Kandy,” he says. While the road to rebuilding these fragile relationships will not be easy, the commitment we saw in Gampola from both the police and community members assured us that greater acceptance and trust is not far off.

The exposure visit to the Gampola community policing forum was organized by The Asia Foundation for members of the Scotland Police Academy, Senior Police Officials, and Ministry of Defence staff. The Scotland Police Academy was in Sri Lanka to design a program to train front-line police officers in the practice of community policing relevant to the Sri Lankan context. For them, this exposure visit was about understanding the current model of community policing that is taking root in some areas of the country.

Apart from the ubiquitous ring of cell phones, the 2-hour discussion continued uninterrupted, with equal participation from the groups represented. Most of the cases discussed at this month’s forum were surrounding domestic violence, land disputes, alcoholism, physical assault, and property damage. Given that both women and men felt comfortable enough to discuss the all-too-familiar – but highly taboo – cases of alcoholism and domestic violence, two specific issues that plague Gampola, it was clear that the community found the forum to be a “safe” place to voice their opinions. Some people voiced concerns over the widespread, illegal brewing and marketing of alcohol that often takes place in people’s homes and leads to numerous cases of domestic violence. After listening to these concerns, the Gampola police members identified illegal brewing as a policing priority that in the future could include public awareness campaigns against alcoholism. The community representatives confirmed that the monthly forum had been very helpful for discussing and solving issues of domestic violence, although they agreed that these particular problems have no easy solutions.

Although community policing is still new to this population of 9,000, recent information indicates that the incidences of minor crime have decreased significantly. In the past, many people simply stayed quiet, out of suspicion of police officers or fearing retribution from friends and family. Anuraddha Basnayake of Kandurata Community Development Foundation, our local partner, describes the forum as a “platform for coordination,” that involves finding the root causes to common community problems. The benefit of community policing, says Police Inspector Dharmasiri Wijethunga, is that “earlier, it was only the police that were there to handle issues, now the forum has helped build the expertise of the community to help deal with crime.” For example, from July to September this year, there were 220 crime and conflict-related cases brought to the monthly Gampola community policing forums, and approximately 65 percent of these cases were discussed and solved directly in the forums.

Gampola is one of 24 community policing forums under two pilot projects supported by the British High Commission Sri Lanka that are simultaneously running across Kandy and Moneragala Districts. Expanding the community policing projects to the entire island requires context-specific implementation due to unique realities facing each locale. Communities were affected in different ways during the war based on their location, population, and ethnic makeup. Although this makes community policing a complex task in the wake of an indelible and jarring civil war, reconciliation and building community-police relations has never been more important.

At the end of the visit, senior police officials lined up for a photo outside the Gampola Police Station. One could only describe feelings of hope, possibility, and commitment on the part of community members and police officials to build on the success of this pilot initiative and perhaps replicate it in other parts of the country. Bruce Milne of the Scotland Police Academy remarked that the forum in Gampola “has created an atmosphere of trust and confidence between the community and the police,” and has lead to a pragmatic approach to the issues of crime and conflict that affect the Gampola community. Community policing is a long term strategy that can have tangible, lasting benefits for the people of Sri Lanka if it is true to its principles and police and local civil society organizations are willing to engage.

Robyn Levy is an intern at The Asia Foundation’s office in Sri Lanka. She can be reached at rlevy@asiafound.org.

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