Community policing the way to fight crime

I refer to the malaysiakini report 'Sorry JB folks, Parliament has failed you'.

The recent cases of rape in Johor Bahru which has led to a public outcry on crime in the city has highlighted the need for a community policing approach to battling crime.

Community policing, which is being adopted worldwide, is a new way of policing in which the needs and expectations of individuals and local communities are always reflected in police decision making and service. It is widely acknowledged in studies that the police cannot be effective unless they have the consent of the people being policed.

By embracing strategies that personalise police services, police departments that have adopted the community policing philosophy have been able to engage communities in comprehensive collaborative, community-based problem solving aimed at crime and the fear of crime. The engagement of police and the community brings together the power of the criminal justice system with the informal social context that communities can exert.

Community policing in many countries has seen the forging of partnerships between police and local councils, residential groups, NGOs, the business community and schools. These professional and community relationships have allowed for the development of long-term, broad- based interventions that address the conditions which allow chronic crime problems to persist.

The Royal Police Commission which made 125 recommendations to reform the Malaysian police force in 2005 included community policing as a key aspect of developing a 21st century police service.

However, community policing can only be effective, when society believes that policing is impartial and carried out for all rather than on behalf of certain groups. People approach the police with issues of concern to live in a safe environment. Obviously these contacts can only be meaningful when the public has trust in the police agency as a whole and confident in what they are doing.

A key step towards building a police service that enjoys the support and cooperation of the wider community is to ensure that the composition of the police, as far as possible, reflects all sectors of the community. At a minimum, an internal police culture should be established that is sensitive to the needs and concerns of minority communities.

The extent of public trust in, and cooperation with, any police service is also linked to how responsive police officers are to public concerns, particular in relation to the impartial, timely and effective receipt and investigation of complaints of crimes. The Royal Police Commission clearly highlighted the erosion of public confidence in the responsiveness of the police service and made several recommendations to improve police investigations.

Another key element of effective and professional community policing is accountability, both democratic and legal. Democratic accountability is required not just of 'traditional' elected representatives such as members of parliament. There is a need for direct civil society participation in police committees which oversee the setting of objectives for the service, the appointment of senior leadership, the monitoring of overall police performance of public responses to it.

There must also be legal accountability which requires a transparent legal framework for policing, consistent with international human rights standards. This framework must be able to hold individual police officers accountable for abusive actions or omissions. There must exist an internal mechanism that fairly and impartially addresses breaches of police procedures and that inculcate a culture of professionalism, ethical conduct and respect for human rights throughout the police service.

At the same time, an external police oversight mechanism like the proposed Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) must be set up to effectively and independently investigate complaints of abuse lodged against police officers and, if necessary, recommend prosecution and remedial action.

Unless these policies, standards and systems are in place, the police risk serious deterioration in their relationship with the local community like what has occurred in Johor Bahru. These will deprive the police of community support and assistance which are essential aspects for preventing and fighting crime.

The writer is executive director, Amnesty International Malaysia.