From adversary to protector- Sri Lanka Police have turned to ‘Community Policing’ as a way to build bridges between communities and the police at a time when public faith in the police is at an all-time low.
Retired Senior DIG, M. Gomes spends much of his retirement as the President of the Wellawatte Civil Security Committee (CSC) but this time, he remains outside the police station and helps people connect with the police.
“The police department wanted to start committees to empower civil society but at the moment it is only the Wellawatte police civil society which is getting on very well.
“We have about 50 members. We meet every 3rd Sunday of the month at the Wellawatte police division”, said Gomes with pride.
The other active members include the Secretary, S. Thirugnanasambanthar, Dr. Zurfick Ghouse and Judy Costa who have for the last 18 years kept the CSC going.
Their latest project was a walk to build community awareness on violence against women and children,
“We are now more active and do various community projects. Earlier the police used to decide what we should do but now we tell them. We have got certificates for our work”, said Costa.
CSCs are part of the Police’s wider initiative into transforming the force from ‘war policing’ into ‘community policing’. Recently appointed IGP Pujith Jayasundera is an advocate of the initiative and has built strong relations within the communities he worked with through the programme.
CSCs thus have been established in all of the 14,066 Grama Niladhari divisions and on average consist around 25-30 members. A religious leader is appointed as the advisor, the area school principal the chairman, village headman as secretary and a police officer as convener.
The Wellawatte CSC however chose with its more multi-ethnic community chose to have its own constitution and insists that the OIC of the Wellawatte police station or a senior official attend all of its meetings unlike other CSCs which do not work when the police have no time to attend their meetings.
“During the war, the Committees in Colombo helped in the war effort and collected information for the police. We played an important role at the time”, said Gomes but during peacetime, the Committee has had to look into the more pressing issue of day-to-day security.
Dr. Gouse explained, “We have members from various lanes in Wellawatte. They bring up various issues they have from traffic issues, to blockades, to drainage, garbage, and broken street lights”.
The CSCs thus has become the go-between for the police and the community,
“If there is a problem, members call me up in the middle of the night. Then I call the police. They say, the police do not know who we are, but we know you so we prefer to go through you”, said Costa while Gomes said, “At our meetings, if any member has a problem, I straight away call the officer responsible for it and take action. We solve a lot of problems then and there”.
The meetings are also a place where the OIC Wellawatte reads out all the crimes the police have solved for the month while listening to any new problems the community might have. Thus helping the community hold the police accountable.
Dr. Gouse stressed that the Wellawatte OIC was very supportive of the CSC and that this made things easier.
According to the Director of the Community Policing Division, S.S.P. D.M.M. Pussella, community policing helps the police be proactive instead of reactive when dealing with crime, “You cannot be a police officer without this”, he said.
Pussella explained, “This concept has always been around, earlier it was known as ‘thombu’ or a village committee. It helps the police identify the requirements of the public and then deal with those problems. To build relationships and earn their trust. It is then that the public share information and are willing to cooperate with the police to solve crimes”.
Officially however, community policing was never formally integrated into the broader national security framework and implementation has greatly depended on the enthusiasm of the senior officer in charge of the area.
The Asia Foundation research on, “Community policing through bicycle patrolling in Sri Lanka: An incipient post-conflict strategy” in 2014 showed that while community policing was increasing trust at the local level and making people feel safer, it was not yet transforming broader policing culture.
It also stressed that the police officers found community activities burdensome with their other routine duties and at times were under-trained and had linguistic difficulties when dealing with communities in certain areas.
In 2007, the Sri Lanka Police worked with the Scottish Police College to implement the community policing principles which led to the ‘five-year Strategic Implementation Plan for Community policing in March 2011.
This converted the Civil Defence Committees set up for intelligence gathering during the war to Civil Security Committees. Since then new and old police recruits have been trained in community policing.
Gomes observed that while the people are usually apprehensive of police, in Wellawatte, they have managed to bring the police more ‘people-friendly’.
Safety and crime however remains a top priority as Wellawatte with 292 apartment buildings has housing which is increasingly shut off from the public eye.
“I only know those in my own floor at my apartment building. I don’t know the one’s below or above. People keep to themselves. We don’t know what’s happening”, said Thirugnanasambanthar as drug addicts breaking into apartments have turned into a common practice in the area.
“Drugs is the biggest problem here”, said Gomes.
The Wellwatte CSC thus has conducted awareness sessions on how people can be safe, “We have advised people to fix CCTV cameras all over. They are now more cautious, women do not walk around wearing gold”, said Thirugnanasambanthar.
The Wellwatte OIC however has informed the CSC that there is a drop in crime rate in their area.
SSP Pussella too affirms this statistic and said that in 2011, 54,000 crimes were reported island wide and the solving rate was at 44 percent but in 2015, 40,160 crimes were reported and had a solving rate of 59 percent.
“If the police are with the people and the people with them, the criminals become ostracized. They are scared to commit a crime, because they know they know the people will inform the police. It also helps us solve crime easily. If the people do not like the police, they start supporting the criminals”, said SSP Pussella.
He added, “Only 10 percent of a population are criminals, the remaining 90 percent are law abiding citizens”.
For National Police Commission, Chairman, Prof Siri Hettige who has been inundated with many public complaints against the police, community policing addresses two key aspects; improving the relationship between the public and police and helping people improve their own security,
“Current and retired police officers are quite passionate about community policing but we have to look at what we are going to address through this”, he said.
He added, “We have to admit that there is a gap between the police and community at present. In many places the relationship is adversarial. When we have a huge gap, each acts in a compartmentalized manner”.
The Chairman viewed policing through a broader law and order perspective,
“We expect the police to enforce law and order but community policing views that at a different angle. It is not only about law enforcement, security needs a multi-stakeholder enterprise and needs to get the community involved”, said the Prof Hettige.
In practice, SSP Pussella said, “The police need the public and the public need the police, one cannot do without the other”, but in Costa’s perspective, “We do all this for our own security”, she said.