Thursday, 5 April 2012

Embedding police in their communities is important in both the developing and the industrialised world

by David Leonard

In the past two weeks racial harassment by police and those assisting them have made headlines in the U.S. and the U.K. These events remind us of the importance of having police forces that are embedded in the communities they serve. My personal experience of police racial profiling in the U.S. as well as research on police reform in Sierra Leone and the Democratic Republic of Congo reveal common problems in policing in ‘developed’ and ‘developing’ contexts.

Two personal stories of policing and racial profiling

Two of my children are white and two are African-American. This created some stark comparisons as the children went through their teens in the politically liberal and racially integrated San Francisco Bay area.

James, one of our white sons, owned a Honda motor scooter and had a license to operate it. He was never stopped by the police while driving it. His black brother Chris once borrowed the scooter for a ride around the neighbourhood. He had a driving license, but not for a scooter, so he was driving carefully. The police pulled him over for a “check” and arrested him. They didn’t believe the scooter belonged to his family, but when his older white brother Ken turned up at the police station with a license but no proof of ownership, they were happy to release the vehicle to him.

On another occasion Chris was driving our Toyota Camry home and realised he was being followed by a police car. He was careful to stay well within the law. For this he was pulled over by the police for driving suspiciously; he is black and a Camry is a “white” car.

The police officers who stopped Chris may not have been personally racist. It almost certainly was statistically correct that black male teens rarely drive Toyota Camrys.

A Mexican-American friend of ours works as a highway patrol officer. She was told by other officers she should target other Mexican-Americans, particularly those who wore cowboy hats and drove pick-up trucks, in order to meet her quota for stopping traffic offenses. She was distressed to discover that such targeting actually worked; she could easily get her quota of unlicensed and drunken drivers this way.

The corrosive effects of conflict between police and marginalised communities

But even when statistically correct, racial stereotyping has corrosive effects on criminality and police effectiveness. In the US it is clear that harassment of African American young men convinces them that there is no point in attempting conventional success; the system is biased against them and is out to “get” them. In Chris’s case he dropped out of school after having done well and developed an “attitude”, which took him 15 years to overcome and return to university.

The response of targeted groups in turn convinces the police that their targeting is correct. The police tend to become yet more aggressive. This corrosive syndrome is especially bad in the US. One only has to read the newspapers to see that it is present in Britain and France as well.

When the connection between police and communities breaks down, both sides become right: marginalised groups think the police are out to get them; police expect these groups to behave anti-socially. These two rights produce a dreadful wrong.

Solutions are found not in technical fixes, but in embedding police in communities

Studies done around the world demonstrate that policing is most effective when officers and the communities know and trust each other. This means we must de-escalate police-community conflicts.

Britain’s “bobbies” are, or were, such an effective police force because they were unarmed, on-foot and alone. This led them to find creative ways to defuse dangerous situations and to build good community relations. (We now know that women officers are more effective on the beat than “power projecting” male officers for the same reasons.)

Research we have conducted on police reform in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Sierra Leone reveals illustrates the importance of embedding police in communities. Donors have been tempted to see policing in technical terms and to build “up-to-date” national police forces at the expense of traditional local ones. Too often, these “up-to-date” forces become projections of national state power. They act not to protect citizens, but to protect the government against its citizens.

The dangers of a police force divided from the citizens it is meant to serve are particularly great in socially-divided societies. Here, the police can easily be seen as reinforcing the dominance of one group over another. Police who are embedded in their communities are as important in the developing world as they are in the U.S., U.K. and France.

Police need to be positively embedded in the communities they serve. For this to happen, they need to come from these communities, know the people who live in them and have their confidence. “Technical” solutions, such as guns, police cruisers and radios tend make the divides between police and citizens bigger, not smaller.

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