Comment & analysis

Overcoming a fraught legacy: building police–public cooperation in Central Asia

22 June 2021 Ilya Jones Overcoming a fraught legacy: building police–public cooperation in Central Asia

A new Saferworld report with research from Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan highlights some of the successes and challenges of introducing and institutionalising community policing, including building police–public partnerships to identify, address and prevent issues that affect community safety and security locally.

Discussions on criminal justice and police reform have been front and centre this past year around the world after the killing of George Floyd in the United States set off a global reaction to the excessive use of force by the police, abuse of power and discrimination. Proposals have been put forward on how to better balance funding for policing with social services, as well as for creating more responsive and accountable police bodies. But it is clear that there is no panacea that will fix the multitude of challenges or build trust overnight.

In Central Asia too, police reform has not been an easy or straightforward process. The Central Asian states inherited their policing systems from the Soviet Union. This contributed to the long-held perception that the police were more interested in protecting the authorities rather than the rights of citizens. They had traditionally taken bribes or used coercive methods to fight crime and provide security. While this perception persists, since independence there have been multiple efforts from governments, civil society and international organisations to change the contentious relationship between the police and communities, build trust and improve transparency and accountability.

‘Community policing’ is one approach that seeks to create a collaborative and accountable police service. While imperfect, this approach has yielded many successes in Central Asia and has shown continuing promise in building trusting relationships within communities. Tracing its principles and foundations back to 19th-century England, the community policing philosophy is premised on bringing together police and communities to jointly identify and address drivers of insecurity, conflict and violence. Saferworld and civil society partners have been working with national and local authorities, donors and international organisations to implement this approach – with elements taken from the participatory ‘community security’ programming model we use with partners – to improve community safety and security, mainly in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, with some work in Uzbekistan. From those experiences, and based on dozens of interviews in Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, our latest report looks at some of the challenges and lessons from such efforts.

Different contexts, shared challenges

The three countries have all had very different trajectories which influence public perceptions of the police to this day. In Tajikistan, for example, civil war in the 1990s often pitted the people and the police against one another. This was especially true in parts of the country where opposition forces were stronger during the war, making trust harder to rebuild. In Kyrgyzstan, multiple large-scale protests led to violent clashes with the police; a more open media and civil society landscape exposed mishandled cases or misconduct, creating negative perceptions among the public. In Uzbekistan, a long history of repression created a climate of mistrust that has only begun to be addressed in a more open atmosphere in recent years.

Yet, despite the differences, our respondents from each of these countries pointed to similar challenges regarding community-police cooperation. The first set of challenges were legacies of mistrust and day-to-day interactions involving corruption. This was especially true for ethnic, religious or other marginalised or minority groups, including women and young people, who do not feel they are represented by the police. The same applies to women and girls – with all three countries struggling to recruit women into the police. As a result, problems that disproportionately affect women – such as gender-based violence – are underreported or mishandled by a largely male police force, often without proper training for cases of violence against women.

This issue has been mitigated somewhat by the work of Community Policing Partnership Teams (CPPTs), which operate in both Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and which include a diverse representation of people (including community and religious leaders, women, young people, teachers, local authorities and representatives from civil society) working together with the police. Together they discuss security concerns and priorities and develop action plans to address them – either funded by civil society organisations and international donors, or through local government budgets. However, these teams have their own power dynamics and this requires some navigation to ensure that a range of views are heard.

Political will was also essential across the board. Many of the people we spoke with mentioned that some form of police reform is pursued almost everywhere, but that without buy-in – both from the top as well as locally – it is unlikely to go anywhere. In the three countries, there are a range of different interests and motivations. Some seek to preserve the status quo; others, inside and outside of government, push for concrete improvements to police practice and collaboration with communities. Legislation that directly addresses or enables reform efforts, easing bureaucratic or corrupt practices, is a good starting point – but without the political will to put them into practice, and also to consult a wide cross-section of civil society and the public, they remain only on paper.

The key to this collaboration with the wider public is to think creatively about communication. Many of those we spoke with mentioned that even when there is political will, lack of communication can hamper efforts to connect with communities. Some specific locations in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan had positive experiences overcoming these challenges, such as the use of SMS, social media and door-to-door visits to inform people of town meetings, where local authorities present on what they have achieved and solicit ideas for future crime and conflict/violence prevention activities. The wider the range of people involved in these efforts, the better. For example, in Kyrgyzstan respondents highlighted the crucial role of ayil okmotu (local government bodies) in peacebuilding and crime prevention activities, although it is often unclear what security responsibilities these different bodies have. In Tajikistan, similar roles were recommended for mahallas (neighbourhood councils).

Meanwhile, civil society – with support from international partners – has an important role to play in pushing for greater police accountability and cooperation with the public, and also for wider consultations outside of ministries on a range of legislative and policing policies. Donors should continue to take a cooperative approach with governments on improving accountability and people-focused security provision. Community policing is but one model working towards this goal – and with greater discussions on what works and where things can improve, funding can become more effective by taking into account best practices.

Saferworld’s community policing work in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan is funded by The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) under the US State Department. For more country-specific recommendations and findings, read the full report here.