Lessons Learned for COP in Post-Conflict Contexts

The following lessons stem from the results of our ICT4COP research and aim to provide guidance to the variety of actors involved in police reform processes in post-conflict contexts, broadly defined. It should be noted that first and foremost, our case studies have shown great variety when it comes to the practice of COP, underlining the importance of having a context sensitive approach. However, based on our studies, we also argue that there are a number of lessons as for challenges and opportunities, that are of a more generic character.

1. Know the local context

History, politics, cultural and social practices as well as power relations condition and shape any attempts at police reform in any given context. While this is true in all contexts, it is particularly important in post-conflict contexts, where the state has likely supported some groups and not others, and may well have been complicit in human rights offences. Efforts to promote Community-Oriented Policing (COP) should therefore be context-sensitive, building on in-depth knowledge of the context both prior to, during and following conflict. What characterizes the police and its modes of operation; and to what extent are they seen as trust-worthy, legitimate and accountable by the local populations? What characterizes the relationship between the police and the local community? Who are the local power holders, the gate keepers and the vulnerable groups in a given society? How is security and insecurity conceived by different groups in society and who do they go to for protection and/or support? What COP-like initiatives already exist? What are the local experiences with COP-like practices? Which NGOs and civil society initiatives are working with the police and local communities? And what is the history of international police assistance and interventions? By not taking the local context into account, we risk not only missing out on achieving predefined COP goals, but also to exacerbate local insecurities, consolidate existing structural inequalities – and create new.

2. Promote ownership among a variety of local actors

If COP is part of an internationally assisted police reform, it is by default top-down. Although implemented through national police services, international COP initiatives nevertheless tend to respond more to the needs and agendas of international agencies at the expense of downward accountability towards local communities. This again leads to the exclusion of locally realized problems and solutions, thus undermining local ownership of reform. Similarly, state-initiated reform processes can themselves be top-down, if they lack mechanisms to involve civil society and communities in their design and implementation. Local ownership can only be achieved through the active engagement of local actors, both from within the police and from various groups with different power bases within civil society and communities. From the very beginning, the responsibility for defining the needs and implementing how COP can meet these needs, should lie in the hands of local actors.

3. Apply a broad notion of security and insecurity

Security sector reform tends to have a state-based approach, where physical security is in focus. This may not correspond to people’s perceptions of security, which tend to be much broader, going beyond crime and insurgency, and encompassing issues such as dispossession, marginalization, restricted access to various types of services and health and education facilities, lack of legal and political rights, lack of social opportunities, job insecurity, food insecurity, and livelihood related to climate change. A focus of what is commonly referred to as human security implies an approach recognizing that people often face multiple or related threats, and that insecurities in one sector can overlap or be linked to another sector. This implies that police need to partner with a range of other state (and non-state) actors in addressing people’s human security. Moreover, it stresses the importance of early prevention, because it is easier – and less costly – to address insecurities through early prevention than later intervention.

4. Promote police practices that build trust

Especially in post conflict settings, the existence of prevalent security threats may trigger the police (and the state in general) to adopt heavy-handed strategies, where the main focus is on protecting the sitting regime rather than the people. These heavy-handed strategies may exaggerate fear and resentment towards the police at local levels, and this way, have detrimental consequences for police-community relations. Instead, COP efforts must include deliberate efforts to nurture police-community relations characterized by mutual trust, legitimate policing and downward police accountability towards local communities. As COP depends on the overall governance of a country at large, police reforms promoting COP should also promote decentralized policing systems, and a police service that aims at serving the broader needs and insecurities of local communities rather than one that focuses on protecting the state.

5. Recognize the existence of multiple security providers

In most post-conflict countries, the police do not operate with a monopoly in security (and justice) provision. Often, non-state actors play a more important role in security provision than the state police. Non-state security providing institutions may vary considerably in their origins, functions, and role and they may operate with differing degrees of legitimacy and recognition by the state and by the people. (with whom they may cooperate or contest). Some may work very well, and represent good alternatives to state dysfunction, while others do not and in fact represent insecurity for people. The relationship between the state, the people and non-state (in)security providers may be characterized by cooperation or contestation. Irrespective of their role, such institutions are indeed a part of the local context and will influence the way in which police-community relations need to be understood.  While we should not romanticize these institutions, we may (when appropriate) consider building upon them when developing new COP initiatives, as it may enhance the relevance, legitimacy and sustainability of the new initiatives.

6. Pay particular attention to vulnerable groups

While it is commonplace to think of a community as a unified or homogenous group, this is not the case. Within most local communities, there are a variety of groups and individuals with different identities, interests, capabilities, challenges and needs. Some groups may historically have obtained certain advantages and thus experience favouritism from the police. Others may be, or feel, discriminated against. Local politics have major implications for police-community relations, including the ways in which the police are trusted and regarded as legitimate by the local community. Considering the diversity within a community, efforts to promote COP must include measures to map and analyse the micropolitics and power relations at local levels and ensuring that the needs of the most vulnerable are addressed. This should be followed by It deliberate efforts to involve different societal groups in COP efforts to accommodate their varying security needs.

7. COP is a philosophy and a long-term endeavor

COP implementation is not a one-off exercise, rather it must be seen as a continuous process to improve how the police relate to – and interact with – local communities. Meaningful COP entails more than a change in policy or rhetoric – it requires a change of modus operandum of the police. Whether efforts to promote COP are internationally or nationally initiated, the focus must be on generating reflection and learning around police culture, behavior and attitudes and on building mutual police-community relations, rather than on transplanting technical skills or implementing pre-determined activities. Since these types of changes are likely to take time, incremental positive changes should be celebrated. COP can only be sustained through long-term investment, context-specific solutions and the placement of the ownership of COP jointly between the police and community at local level.