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Policing—the global approach

Sunday, August 12, 2012

In Bolivia last week President Evo Morales approved a Citizen Security Law which committed to a new system of community policing across the country. This new model, developed with assistance from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, brings civil society together with the police force so that problems of crime are addressed jointly.


In many cases the solutions are simple: such as community groups working alongside police to identify scenarios where ordinary citizens are particularly vulnerable to crime and then agreeing a response. That response might be a joint patrol of police and citizens at bus stops where street vendors returning late from the city centre had been subjected to crime, or greater safety outside schools—previously children had often been the target for assault and robbery by street gangs.


It’s hard to think of two places less similar than Northern Ireland or Bolivia, with totally distinct history, languages, culture and ethnicity. But certain principles learned in one place can be applicable elsewhere. Since major reforms introduced in 1999 as a result of the Patten Report, policing in Northern Ireland has emphasised policing in the community. This means a system where every identifiable neighbourhood has a dedicated policing team staffed by officers who spend several years on the same beat. Police officers are expected to do their patrolling on foot and agree a policing plan directly with community representatives.


This is a policing model which emphasises police visibility and familiarity: the ordinary citizen should know who their police officer is. Before coming to Trinidad and Tobago I worked in four totally different countries where policing reform was high on the agenda: Nigeria, Yemen, Iraq and Afghanistan. In all of these countries with their distinct histories, cultures and resources, the basic challenges are similar: moving from a police force to a police service—one that works with and serves the population and is accountable to it.


Trinidad and Tobago may be different: we have heard that the challenges of policing in this island are so unusual that what works in Edmonton will not work in Trinidad. There is a cultural disconnect that prevents the adoption of policing policies that have proved their worth elsewhere. On one level this is surprising; this cultural disconnect does not prevent Trinidad and Tobago from relying on a highest court of appeal that is 4,400 miles away.


But policing is a community activity in a way that law courts aren’t. And it would be interesting to know what the community in Trinidad and Tobago expects from their police. Do they want a police force that is visible, familiar and answerable to the local community? Do they want  input from outsiders who have been through similar reforms and learned from their mistakes? Or do they want an all-out, no-holds-barred war on crime?


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