Notes from the Field

A New Face of Policing in Timor-Leste

April 23, 2014

Asia Foundation 60th anniversary seriesOn March 27, the national police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) celebrated their 14th anniversary with full pomp and circumstance. For 24 years until 1999, the police in Timor were under the command of the Indonesia military. Now, it seems that memories of countrywide conflict and instability in this small tropical nation are receding.

A community police officer walks through Becora talking to community members. With limited resources and training, Timor’s police service faces the challenge of moving from a crisis response and public order orientation to helping to prevent disputes from escalating. A nascent community policing program is helping to address these challenges. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

A community police officer walks through Becora talking to community members. With limited resources and training, Timor’s police service faces the challenge of moving from a crisis response and public order orientation to helping to prevent disputes from escalating. A nascent community policing program is helping to address these challenges. Photo/Conor Ashleigh

In a recent Asia Foundation survey, almost half of all respondents believe the country is going in the right direction and 72 percent believe security has improved compared to the year before. However, with a population of just over 1 million and the lowest GDP in Asia, new challenges have arisen – challenges that have remained hidden or ignored through years of resistance, state building, and brief but intense periods of crisis and instability after independence.

With limited resources and training, Timor’s police service faces the challenge of moving from a crisis response and public order orientation to helping to prevent disputes from escalating and providing a higher level stability and security to a rural and geographically isolated population. The same survey found that 64 percent of citizens felt concerned about their safety in their locality. Old quasi-military styles of policing inherited from the Indonesian and Portuguese occupation that emphasize reaction and control will never have the number of police, or funding, required to respond to all situations or reduce feelings of insecurity. The alternative, highlighted during the PNTL General Commander’s anniversary speech, and embodied in the police’s first- ever, five-year strategic plan, calls for all officers to operationalize the philosophy of community policing. However, this has proven to be a difficult task, and after 13 years of United Nations Police assistance, the details of a Timor-Leste-led community-policing policy is only just emerging.

Ask 100 different people to define community policing and you are likely to receive 100 different replies. A recent study by the Overseas Development Institute highlights some of the competing definitions and applications of community policing in development programs. The wide range of definitions and theories helps to explain how difficult it has been to translate competing philosophies on police development into actionable operations. However, in general there are a few principles that help us recognize community policing when it occurs:

  1. Policing by consent, not coercion
  2. The police as part of the community, not apart from it
  3. The police and community working together to identify community needs
  4. The police, public, and other agencies working together in partnership
  5. Tailoring the business of policing to meet community needs

Far from the seaside capital of Dili and the military-style parades, in the shade of towering mountains in the rural district capital town of Ainaro, a new wave of community-policing support is beginning. The deputy general commander of the national police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) stood at attention, a colorful ceremonial woven tais hanging from his neck, as six bare- chested elders chanted and danced to the spirits. With the ancestors appeased, a mix of visiting district police commanders, embassy staff from New Zealand and the United States, Asia Foundation representatives, and the district administrator made their way through a dense corridor of community members, high school students, village leaders, soldiers, and line ministry representatives.

The cause for celebration was the inauguration of a District Steering Committee (DSC), tasked with establishing and overseeing community police councils (CPCs) at the village level. A CPC is one example of how to apply the philosophy of community policing operationally. While introducing the concepts of community policing is vital, it is also necessary to provide police and community leaders with the practical “how to” skills needed to effectively build partnerships and to design and implement community policing initiatives. Community members together with the police are led through five days of dialogue during which they identify and prioritize security and safety issues affecting their communities and then elect a coordinating body to carry out targeted activities and monitor the security situation in their village.

While the whole community is engaged with identification of issues, the CPCs themselves consist of an average of 7-12 community member volunteers and at least one police officer. In practice, the chief of the village and the police are elected as the co-chairs and there are representatives for women, youth, customary leaders, and veterans. The CPCs meet at least once a month and work with the community and the police to carry out their planned activities. Over the past two years, CPCs in 36 target villages across four districts have helped to resolve over 200 conflicts, from land disputes and assaults, to accusations of witchcraft and theft. The PNTL are currently expanding CPCs to 31 new locations in four additional districts with the establishment of DSCs to coordinate and monitor their activities.

The pairing of community councils with police officers, overseen by a wide range of government and traditional leaders, is slowly taking root in Timor-Leste and helping to increase police accountability, boost visibility, and provide higher levels of security to communities. Replicated in eight of the 13 districts so far, DSCs are proving that community policing is not a foreign concept, but can and should be interpreted through the lens of a country’s history, culture, and politics.

As the DSC in Ainaro reads a pledge to support community and police activities, the deputy general commander points out one person in on the DSC in particular. “I was the first one to arrest him about 10 years ago,” he said quietly. “He used to be one of our biggest security threats in this area and now he’s at the table helping us.” It is the face of the new Timor-Leste policing experience, the application of customary principles and the prioritization of restorative justice through old-fashioned relationship-building.

Todd Wassel is The Asia Foundation’s director for Safety and Security Programs in Timor-Leste and author of the report, “Institutionalising Community Policing in Timor-Leste: Police Development in Asia’s Youngest Country.” He can be reached at twassel@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Write a comment:

* Required

Comments are moderated. Please be polite and on-topic.

 characters available