How Can We Understand Police-Community Relations?

In post-conflict environments, local populations have often experienced abuse at the hands of law enforcement. They may thus see police officers, and the stations they represent, as threats to be avoided rather than a source of protection or assistance.  Due to grievances formed over time, certain (often minority) communities may be reluctant to collaborate with the state and may try to escape what they see as abusive interference and marginalization from the state – this includes the police. Police too may feel threatened by, or be suspicions towards, their communities or by civil society in general. This may undermine police-community co-operation through COP. 

We use two models to visualize the spectrum of police governance approaches, and their impact on police-community relations:

Low levels of societal trust is one of the greatest challenges in post-conflict environments. Trust, in turn, is closely related to two other concepts – legitimacy and accountability. When any of these components are missing, efforts to implement COP may be difficult. For example, initiatives by the police to establish better communication with communities may be misinterpreted as police surveillance set up to gather information about individuals and groups within a community. Likewise, the police may not recognize the legitimacy of local groups in their efforts to be in involved in security initiatives. Attempts at COP could in such cases increase mistrust. The existence, or lack of, trust, legitimacy, and accountability, will influence the way in which the police operates and is viewed by the local population. 

We use two models to visualize the spectrum of police governance approaches, and their impact on police-community relations:

Large arrow pointing left and right with text inside

Police systems at the control-dominated end of the spectrum tend to be centralized nationally and have a military-like approach. They hardly provide public services that address broader community needs. Instead, the police operate as a force, where the main task is to protect the interests of the state. The police often fails to be recognized as legitimate by the general population, and trust between the police and the public, and moreover a social contract between the state and society, is often lacking in authoritarian/control-dominated systems, which are common in countries emerging from war and conflict. Instead the police may be used to protect the interests of the ruling elite, possibly violating international human rights.

In contrast, at the other end of the spectrum, are decentralized, community-oriented police (COP) systems, whose main function is to serve the people – adopting a human security perspective and providing servicing that address the wider needs – and insecurities – of the local community. In police systems that are community-oriented, the police are part of the interface between state and society and constitute an important component of the social contract between the state and its people, and the police enjoys high levels of legitimacy and trust.

Police governance, and the practice of COP, is subject to changes in the overall political governance. Our research from Nicaragua demonstrates an extreme case, in which a system very much to the left of the police governance spectrum broke down because of changes in the political context towards securitization and an authoritarian regime. Former ideals of a communitarian, proactive and preventative police were replaced by militarized styles of policing and weakened police-community relations. Read more here.


 Extra-legal police-community relations

Sometimes police-community relations develop in ways that may be legally and ethically problematic. While “bribery” in legal terms is when groups or individuals pay the police to enable a criminal activity or not prosecute a case, resource scarcity within the police may force members of the community to provide payments to the police as a means of simply accessing police protection or any other police service. For example, it is not uncommon that one must cover fuel costs for the police to travel to a crime scene or to issue a report. An implication of the introduction of a “user-pays-principle” is that access to police services and justice depends upon citizens’ ability to pay.

Other times, cultivation of a relationship with the police through payment becomes part of a livelihood strategy – and considered by those involved necessary for surviving in very challenging contexts. This Digital Story from the Nimruz region in Afghanistan provides insight into such a situation.

A Story of Survival (Afghanistan)