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Perceptions and Misperceptions of Community Policing

February 1 2012
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In the context of the 2014 withdrawal and the ongoing transition from International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), the professionalism and operational capacity that the Afghan forces will require to secure and stabilize the country has moved to center stage of debate and strategy making. As we pointed out in an earlier APPRO blog post, the international contributions to Security Sector Reform (SSR) have diverged in their approaches.

 

The main two contributions are by the German Government / European Union Police Mission in Afghanistan (EUPOL) and the NATO Training Mission – Afghanistan / Combined Security Transition Command – Afghanistan (NTM-A/CSTC-A). Whereas the German/EUPOL approach is one of increasing the responsiveness of the police towards communities’ needs, the NTM-A/CSTC-A approach is focused on building the military capacity of the Afghanistan National Police (ANP) to make the police prepared for fighting insurgencies. The manner in which these two approaches have been coordinated, however, is less than efficient or effective. There is little evidence of cooperation and coordination, resulting in contradictory and unsustainable outcomes.

 

Assuming that the current level of ANSF proficiency is insufficient to assure Afghanistan’s stability, advocates for both camps have increased their efforts to strengthen the ties between the community and the police in the past couple of years, thereby introducing a new phrase to an old problem: ‘community policing.’ What is striking is that the understanding of what community policing entails is undefined and understood differently by different stakeholders. There are at least two ways to understand community policing: using the community to aid the police in their work, and making the police more responsive to community concerns.

 

Using the community to accomplish policing goals

Under the assumption that the ANSF is incapable of assuring sufficient security, the Afghan Local Police (ALP) has been established by NTM-A as a sub-pillar of the ANP. The ALP is supposed to function as a temporary Afghan-led local-defense initiative designed to bridge capabilities until adequate numbers of ANSF soldiers are trained to provide security for the entire country. Similar initiatives include the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3) and the Afghan Auxiliary Police (AAP). All these initiatives have been widely criticized for being poorly conceptualized “quick fix solutions” to Afghanistan’s complex security problems.

Although the official process of recruiting ALP members precipitates strong community involvement in the nomination of ALP members, the most accurate criticism of this program has been the fact that local commanders can abuse the the ALP program to pursue their own agendas. For example, Human Rights Watch reports that local police and ALP have been involved in numerous cases of abuse and human rights violation. The report further characterizes them as counterproductive to security efforts. Officially forming part of ANSF, ALP (and even more so AAP and AP3) are frequently compared to or equalized with ‘Arbakai.’ Arbakai are a traditional community based security system, occasionally called upon to implement decisions made by a local shura or jirga to secure territories and prevent illegal activities. Originally conceptualized as an impartial system of local security provision, the Arbakai system is alleged to have been used by local power brokers and warlords for illegitimate and anti-communitarian purposes.

The implementation of the ALP and similar systems forms one cornerstone of the COIN doctrine and is occasionally referred to as ‘community policing.’ Through implementing community based security mechanisms such as ALP that are theoretically controlled by communities, the communities themselves form an active part of the counterinsurgency. This understanding of ‘community policing’ translates into mobilizing the community to fight insurgencies more effectively. More broadly, this conceptualization of community policing is rooted in the common conception of community policing in the Anglo-Saxon world, that of using decentralized community structures to enforce law and order through such mechanisms as neighborhood watch, for example.

 

Making the police more responsive to their communities

Another conception of community policing, most prominently advocated by EUPOL, is to increase the responsiveness of the police towards communities’ needs. This approach, also referred to as Police-e-Mardumi, is an innovative new way of interactive policing based on partnerships between people and the police. Police and communities are expected to work together and identify and solve problems in the community. The implementation focuses on educating police officers on how to interact and engage with the community to develop strong cooperative ties. Major tasks of the ‘community police officers’ are negotiations, law enforcement, and prevention of disputes through being present in the community.

 

The Police-e-Mardumi Secretariat was inaugurated in April 2012 to coordinate activities that increase the trust of the population in the police and increase the responsiveness of the police towards the needs of society. In fact, according to the independent police perception survey of 2011 communities find cooperation between police and communities important for their security and have reported that meetings with the community and police representatives increase their own security. Activities under the Police-e-Mardumi also include sports competitions between the community representatives and police teams and events such as the Police film festival.

Despite these developments there is no official definition of what constitutes community policing in Afghanistan, apart from increased police and community cooperation. The role of the police continues to be perceived as simultaneously serving the community while protecting it against insurgency. Community engagement programs and “effective governance” are touted as the ultimate best defense against insurgents but there is no consensus on the meaning of community policing. The absence of agreement on the meanings of such basic phrases as community policing has made – and continues to make – coordination and strategic planning impossibly difficult at best.

 

Given the lack of clarity of what community policing is supposed to be and the different approaches of the main international actors in Security Sector Reform, we suggest the best way to come close to an understanding of community policing in practice and in the Afghan context is involve local elders, religious leaders and other civil society representatives. Such an inclusive approach is likely to lead to a consensus on what community policing should look like in practice. Time is of essence in starting this process, particularly given the weakness of the rule of law, continued mistrust of the communities in the police, and the prospect of the significant changes likely to occur in the lead-up to and after the 2014 transition.

 

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This article does not necessarily reflect the views of APPRO.

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