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Community policing? Achieving more realistic results

It has become fashionable for first-world donors to embrace ‘community policing’ for developing-world security programmes. But context is everything.

Watchful eyes: a community police officer in Amhara State—with the former leader of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, looking down from behind. ODI / Lisa Denney. Some rights reserved.

In November 2014 the UK Department for International Development suspended a £62.5m police-reform programme in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). This followed a United Nations report which found sections of the police force there responsible for the murder of civilians during a crackdown on gangs in 2013-14.

Making policing more citizen-friendly is a clear priority in many countries where police are viewed as a source of insecurity, rather than protection (a perception as valid in places like Ferguson, Missouri as in the ‘fragile states’ which for many might first spring to mind). And, indeed, the UK’s engagement with the DRC police was precisely for this reason—to improve the quality of policing that Congolese experience. Yet the ‘community policing’ answer is far from straightforward.

Absence of consensus

The Overseas Development Institute (ODI) has recently completed a two-year research project on ‘community policing’, with case studies in Ethiopia, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and Timor-Leste and a final report. The project emerged from an interest in the popularity of the concept within donor programmes—despite the absence of consensus on what ‘community policing’ means, what it’s meant to achieve and whether it succeeds in doing so.

Indeed, its diversity of forms and functions is extreme. From customary conflict resolution in Timor-Leste, to family police in Ethiopia, to bicycle patrolling in Sri Lanka, ‘community policing’ is deployed by different actors ostensibly to reduce crime, to enhance intelligence collection, to hold police accountable, to make communities safer and/or to improve state-society relations.

This diversity is not necessarily a weakness: it underscores the ‘fungibility’ of ‘community policing’—its ability to adapt itself, chameleon-like, to various purposes and potentially to bring together a range of interests under a broad umbrella. Such elasticity can be a source of opportunity for the poor and marginalised who are its targets.

Yet it can also mean significant disagreements are masked by the vagueness of the overarching concept. And the ODI case studies revealed that some objectives had been realised more successfully than others.

Too ambitious

‘Community policing’ does appear to have had some success in improving local police-community relations and in some places it has enabled members of communities to play a greater role in their own safety and security. But it has not shown much success in reducing crime, enhancing police accountability or bettering state-society relations—the loftier goals which are often included in donor plans, not least to induce ministers (keen to see big results) to sign off on them. These emerged as too ambitious to be realistic in our case-study countries, as was also recently pointed out in the Independent Commission for Aid Impact’s review of UK security and justice assistance.

What it is possible for ‘community policing’ (in its various forms) to achieve in a given setting is heavily dependent on the context: the history of state formation, the political dispensation, experiences of conflict or emergency, social inequalities and cultures of dispute resolution—and likely many other factors. The case studies showed these were key determinants, not only in setting the stage on which ‘community policing’ unfolds but in a directly formative sense.

In Ethiopia, for instance, ‘community policing’ has been shaped by the country’s violent political past, significant decentralisation (at least formally) to the regional states, an at-times authoritarian political dispensation and strong, informal dispute-resolution mechanisms relying on elders and militia. In this context, ‘community policing’ ostensibly delegates substantial conflict-resolution functions to community and family levels—but under strong surveillance, reporting back up a clear hierarchy.

So while some energetic police officers are solving important local safety problems—such as by organising rotas to hang lamps out at night on the street—and bringing better relations with communities, there are also more sinister effects. Alongside the delegation of conflict-resolution duties from the state police comes the surveillance which ensures they still know what is going on. In such a context, it is highly unlikely that ‘community policing’ could be realistically used to achieve, say, improved police accountability.

Nuanced understanding

This does not mean community policing is not a useful strategy. But the purposes it ultimately serves will depend on the particular constellation of contextual factors in play. Those supporting ‘community policing’ will need to have a nuanced understanding of these factors in order to not do harm, never mind achieve results.

There is a need to become much clearer about what ‘community policing’ can achieve in any given context if it is to remain relevant and effective. Identifying realistic goals will depend on understanding how the context shapes the nature of policing and what is possible. Taking these findings seriously should mean that donor programmes to support ‘community policing’ start imbuing it with relevant objectives tailored to the context—not replicating over-ambitious goals which there is little evidence it can realise. 

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About the author

Lisa Denney is research fellow on politics and governance at the UK Overseas Development Institute. She has an interest in security and development, peacebuilding in fragile states and informal governance practices.


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