Five Things that Make Community Policing Work
October 21, 2015
Last week, the director of Sri Lanka’s National Police Academy joined a delegation from The Asia Foundation’s Community Policing Program in Timor-Leste for a National Forum on Community Policing to discuss community policing approaches to strengthening reconciliation in Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste – two nations still scarred from long-running conflict. While community policing has been taking place in Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste over the past five years, the Sri Lankan Police Service’s participation in the forum signifies a promising new momentum.
Among the damaging legacies of Sri Lanka’s decades of civil conflict has been the erosion of trust between citizens and police officers in communities across the country. This was particularly true in the Northern province, which bore the brunt of the violent conflict in the last years of the war, and in the Eastern province, where the population is a more diverse mix of Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim communities.
With roots in British colonial practices, Sri Lanka’s policing institutions were inclined to be more authoritarian than service-oriented. This outlook was compounded by 30 years of civil war, when police were preoccupied with military operations and terrorist attacks. Given this context, police held deep suspicions of ordinary citizens, and in turn citizens, whose lives had been long overshadowed by conflict, feared any interaction with police.
Much of this sentiment remains despite the end of the war.
To reduce barriers and rebuild trust, The Asia Foundation has been working since 2009 with local leaders, community groups, and the Sri Lankan Police Service to implement community policing programs that foster positive relationships between police and communities, inviting citizens’ input to resolve root causes of security and safety concerns. One officer* who has been participating in the program since the beginning, said that both communities and police learn from each other to identify causes of crime – rather than focusing on the symptoms piecemeal – thereby preventing reoccurrence and defusing local concerns.
As another police officer explained, “Problems related to the economy, social, and health issues are coming to police. It is not possible to find answers to those problems through legal means only. We have to seek support, to solve problems in a sustainable way.”
Although the benefits of community policing are increasingly recognized, changing the perception and reality of community policing practices in police stations across the country has been a significant challenge and will take time to fully achieve. Community policing programs started post-war in 2009 with two small pilot programs in Kandy and Monaragala. A basic training manual was developed in 2011, which is now used for training recruits at the national police college as well as mid-career officers. In the years since, we have expanded our programs to 10 more stations, and aim to establish programs in Matara in the South, Pudukuduirippu in the North, and Sammanthurai in the East. As these programs develop a set of best practices, they are shared with neighboring stations, and will eventually be applied nationwide as the police service increases its capacity. Over time, we’ve identified the most effective elements of our community policing programs. Here are five:
- Bicycle Patrols have had significant impact since the end of the conflict. Despite their simplicity, they have many advantages over past practice by stationary and isolated officers. Impossible in certain parts of the country during the war, bicycle patrolling in neighborhoods increases officers’ visibility and accessibility with community members, who are more comfortable approaching recognizable officers and more likely to then bring up concerns, rather than traveling long distances to intimidating station buildings for time-consuming reporting processes. We have supported the expansion of such patrolling by providing 643 bicycles in 135 stations across all nine provinces in the country.
- Mobile Police Services bring vital police services – such as replacing official ID documentation, issuing certifications for licenses, and filing complaints – to remote areas where citizens would have to travel prohibitively long distances to stations. On designated days, police set up temporary, one-stop shops in collaboration with local government departments that offer services normally available at stations, and combine this with public awareness campaigns on public health issues such as promoting traffic safety, preventing theft, or addressing standing water to reduce water-borne illness. Over the past four years, the Foundation has supported the police to hold 325 mobile police stations countrywide.
- Community Policing Forums bring together community members, police, and government officials to tackle community concerns before they escalate and to address persistent issues within a community. At monthly meetings, police hear from the community about key concerns and offer available resources to resolve them. In many cases, concerns such as alcohol abuse, petty theft, and land disputes can be addressed with proactive steps before they require police intervention. We are currently facilitating 63 forums in eight of the nine provinces.
- Awareness Campaigns provide citizens with the necessary knowledge to avoid common dangers and decrease safety concerns. From traffic, dengue fever, and theft to violence against women, with the support of local partners the police have administered over 500 awareness programs and disseminated valuable information to communities through awareness campaigns, skills training, and door-to-door visits by committees and police, enabling citizens to make informed decisions in their everyday lives. These programs also provide a safe space for the police and community to meet regularly, enabling an increase in trust and confidence.
- Complaint Mechanisms are used in all 63 of our community policing forums and provide a formal avenue for anyone in the community to voice a safety or security concern. Complaint boxes allow people to submit complaints, allowing personal or community issues to be addressed head-on before they escalate. The forums discuss and resolve submitted complaints at each meeting, normalizing the process of soliciting and providing community feedback directly to police and government authorities who serve on the forums.
There is a long road ahead to national systemic change, but relationships have evolved. At community policing forums, we’re increasingly hearing community members use the word “friendly” to describe their relationship with officers, as opposed to “fear,” frequently used before. “Police have changed their attitudes, now people will go to the police station to get services, they support committee members and we feel comfortable going to them,” said one forum participant. Although this perspective has not yet become the norm for all citizens, and at times relationships can be quite tense, the commitment from leadership that we saw at last week’s National Forum reinforce the momentum toward reconciliation in the country’s multi-ethnic, multi-religious society.
*Officer names have been omitted for privacy concerns.
The Asia Foundation’s community policing work in Sri Lanka has been generously supported by the British High Commission.
Johann Rebert is The Asia Foundation’s deputy country representative in Sri Lanka and Santha Deepalal is a program manager for the Foundation’s Community Policing Program there. They can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com. Contributors to this piece include Diana Kelly Alvord, senior program officer for the Washington office, and the Foundation’s former intern in Sri Lanka, Caitlin Trent. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors and not those of The Asia Foundation.
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