Notes from the Field

Bridging the Gap between Bangladesh’s Police and Communities

December 7, 2011

Earlier this year, Sumaiya Akhter, a 12-year-old resident of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, hanged herself from her ceiling fan with a scarf. She had been verbally harassed by Selim, an older neighborhood boy, on the way to and from school every day. Sumaiya told her parents, but just prior to her death, her mother scolded her for what was happening, and she likely had nowhere else to turn.

Community Policing

In an effort to reduce long tensions between police and communities, the Bangladesh Police created a nationwide network of Community Policing Forums. Above, police and community members participate in a recent forum.

Regrettably, Sumaiya’s case is not an isolated incident. Crime in Bangladesh is on the rise overall, and this kind of gender-based violence is also becoming more common. According to the Bangladesh Police, between 2001 and 2010 there was a 42 percent increase in reported crimes, including narcotic-related offences (a 394% increase), child abuse (306%), and cruelty to women (25%). Many observers cite the strained relationship between the police and community members as a large factor contributing to this surge. Tensions and misunderstandings are exacerbated by a long history of distrust resulting from the application of a legal code that dates back to 1861 when the British were in power. At that time, the objective of the police was to defend British colonial rule rather than to serve and protect citizens. Unfortunately, some of these same ideas about policing continue to be applied today.

At the same time, the Bangladesh Police are confronted daily with serious obstacles in their efforts to reverse recent crime trends. According to an officer from the northwest Rajshahi Division, “the people do not understand how hard our job is. Sometimes we know there is a problem, but cannot fix it because we don’t have the resources.” This dearth of resources is apparent in several areas. First, the police are badly understaffed, with one officer for every 1,138 citizens. Even when an officer is available to respond to an incident, most have not received adequate training to prepare them for field operations. This situation is further aggravated by the conditions faced by the low-level officers who make up the majority of the force, many of whom are overworked. The starting monthly salary for police officers is 5,410 taka ($73), which is woefully inadequate to meet the needs of a rural family (9,612 taka, $129), much less the needs of an urban one (15,531 taka, $210). All of these factors combine to create a vicious cycle where many citizens neither trust nor are willing to work with a police force that they perceive to be ineffective.

In an effort to address some these issues, the Bangladesh Police created a nationwide network of Community Policing Forums (CPFs) starting in 2007, which are village-level groups that bring together police and citizens to address ongoing local security challenges. Common issues include gambling, child dowry, violence against women, and petty theft. Through their work with the CPFs, local Community Policing Officers (CPOs) participate in a variety of community events to promote public security, including monthly meetings, awareness-raising campaigns, joint patrols, and police open houses.

The Asia Foundation is working closely with the Bangladesh Police to strengthen its efforts in the CPFs. In addition, we are also piloting a three-day training course on community policing for CPOs. While still in the early stages, this course has already yielded positive results. One participant from the Chapai Nawabganj Sadar Police Station commented that he has always tried to help people, but the course has given him the tools and structure with which to do so more effectively. Recently, a woman approached this officer to file a murder case. She reported that although she originally had a negative perception of police, she found the officer to be kind, helpful, and trustworthy. Thanks to his support, she believed that justice would be served in her case and the culprits punished. This kind of positive interaction would have been nearly unheard of in the past.

Recent efforts in community policing have helped successfully resolve a variety of issues. In one particular CPF in the Gaibandha District, a 32-year-old woman complained that her husband of 15 years had beaten her regularly because she did not give birth to a son. The CPF president, ex-chair, and current member of the local government council (Union Parishad), and three influential locals decided to visit her husband. They convinced the man that his wife was not deliberately denying him children, and warned him about Bangladesh’s strict gender-based violence laws. The Suppression of Violence Against Women and Children Act (2000) provides severe penalties for perpetrators of violence against women, ranging from fines to death, but it is unfortunately rarely enforced due to barriers to access of the justice system, police corruption, mismanagement of evidence and medical reports, and lack of legal knowledge. After this conversation, the husband apologized to his wife and the beatings stopped.

Despite this progress, community policing still faces a number of obstacles in Bangladesh. Due to the sheer quantity of CPFs each Community Policing Officer is expected to oversee, many lack the time and resources to coordinate all CPF activities. Additionally, CPOs require comprehensive training in community policing and a clear mandate of support from the government. The Asia Foundation is working with the police to bring these issues to the forefront of a policy discussion at the national level through increased procedural guidelines and an emphasis on raising awareness about the importance of working in collaboration with citizens.

With this in mind, try reimagining the case described above. What if Sumaiya’s parents or uncle had brought her situation to the attention of the local CPO or Community Policing Forum? Its members could have suggested an alternate route to school. Or they could have recommended that Sumaiya find some friends to walk with, or even that the village elders watch out for her each morning and evening. The CPO could have visited the boy’s house or school to warn him that his actions were unacceptable, or spoken with his family to help stop him from harassing her. All this could have been accomplished in just a few short hours and would likely have saved Sumaiya’s life. With the establishment of effective community policing partnerships throughout Bangladesh, many more lives can be saved, property preserved, and community conflicts avoided in the future.

Rihana Schiro is a technical assistant for The Asia Foundation in Bangladesh. She can be reached at rihanaschiro@yahoo.com. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

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