Community policing in Sri Lanka: a foundation for wider police reform?

Johann Rebert

1 March 2017


Community-oriented policing is not necessarily new, but its popularity has grown significantly over the recent past. The purpose of community policing is often to improve community-police relations and ensure greater police responsiveness to local safety and security issues. Community policing is often spoken of as a ‘philosophy’, which enables its implementation to remain flexible and adapted to local priorities and political dynamics. The community policing approach often has broad and varied objectives, depending on whether one asks citizens, the police, NGOs or donors. These objectives can range from preventing and reducing crime, and the fear of crime, to building trust and confidence between the community and police, to seeking to ensure a more accountable police service and improving state-society relations (Denney and Jenkins 2013). These multiple and overlapping objectives can often present a challenge when supporting the implementation of community policing, which The Asia Foundation has grappled with over the years.

Since 2009, the Asia Foundation has been working in Sri Lanka with local leaders, community groups, and the Sri Lankan Police Service to implement community policing programs that foster relationships between police and communities, inviting citizens’ input to resolve root causes of security and safety issues. Among the damaging legacies of Sri Lanka’s decades of civil conflict was the erosion of trust between citizens and police officers in communities across the country. This was particularly true in the Northern Province, which bore the brunt of violent conflict in the last years of the war, and in the Eastern Province, where the population is a more diverse mix of Sinhalese, Tamil, and Muslim communities. While some of this sentiment remains today despite the war ending in 2009, there is also dissatisfaction in Southern part of the country with regard to the ways in which the police interact with members of the public.

With the support of the Sri Lanka Police, community policing programs started in two small pilot locations in central areas of the country in 2009, and had expanded to 10 more locations in the North, East and South by 2012. A basic training manual was developed in 2011, which is now used for training new recruits at the National Police Academy, and a practical training guide contextualised for Sri Lanka is currently being implemented with Officers-in-Charge of stations. The aim remains to institutionalise this approach nationwide by embedding it in the ongoing police reform process.

Several community policing strategies have been helpful in moving from theory to practice in the Sri Lankan context. While there is some debate over the effectiveness of increased patrolling to reduce crime, bicycle patrols increase officers’ visibility and accessibility. The communities are more comfortable in approaching recognisable officers and are more likely to then raise concerns with regard to local safety and security. Mobile police services have helped to bring vital police services – such as replacing official ID documentation, issuing certifications for licences, and filing complaints – to remote areas where citizens would otherwise have to travel prohibitively long distances to stations. On designated days, police set up temporary, one-stop shops (in collaboration with local government departments) that offer services normally available at stations, and they combine this with public awareness campaign activities on public safety issues such as traffic safety or preventing theft. Community Policing Committees bring together community members, police, and government officials to tackle community concerns before they escalate, as well as to address persistent issues within a community. At monthly meetings, police hear from the community about key concerns, which are usually related to minor crimes, and offer the resources they have available to resolve them.

While the Sri Lanka Police Service increasingly values and understands community policing, ensuring institutionalisation of the approach across the country is a challenge that will take time to address. One positive outcome has been the acceptance of community-oriented policing as the underlying ethos, no matter which functional division police officers are deployed to. It is also clear that community policing approaches in and of themselves will be one step towards improving community-police relations, but wider police reform will be necessary in Sri Lanka to ensure sustainable results. It is important to note that the Ministry of Law and Order, with the support of the Sri Lanka Police and the National Police Commission, have recently begun efforts to promote police reform. While community policing has been an entry point for improving trust and confidence in the police, it will become a central pillar of police reform in the coming years.

You can read more about The Asia Foundation’s community policing work in Sri Lanka and Timor Leste at: http://asiafoundation.org/publication/community-policing-as-a-catalyst-for-change/


About the Author

Johann Rebert

Johann Rebert has been Deputy Country Representative (Sri Lanka) for the Asia Foundation since 2014.

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