What is policing?

SU (2014) distinguishes between police, policing and policing actors:

  • ‘Police: the civil institution of a state, responsible for the prevention and detection of crime, and the provision of safety and security.’
  • ‘Policing: the activities carried out by policing actors in order to maintain law and order and provide safety and security.’
  • ‘Policing actors: the range of state, local and non-state providers in fragile and conflict-affected states who carry out policing.’ (SU, 2014, p. 12)

The police are often the key security and justice institution that citizens interact with, the main point of entry into the criminal justice system, and the state agency primarily responsible for upholding the rule of law, protecting and promoting human rights, and maintaining public order (SU, 2014).

In fragile and conflict-affected states, the national police service under the civilian command and control of the Ministry of Interior is often just one actor providing policing to communities. For example, Baker (2008) states that in a number of African countries, non-state forms of policing undertake key policing roles such as crime prevention and intervention, investigation and resolution, and punishment.

Crime and policing

Efforts to ensure public safety and security require effective state and non-state policing, as well as crime prevention and victim support initiatives. Crime prevention initiatives include neighbourhood watch programmes, community engagement and awareness. They also involve understanding the causes of crime in order to design strategies for reducing risk factors. Where social causes are considered to be important, crime prevention initiatives may include educational and employment initiatives and after school programmes for youth.

Victim support services are aimed at making the criminal justice system more responsive to the needs of those affected by crime. One component is support for victims in their interaction with criminal justice institutions. Another aspect is improving services for victims, to respond to their immediate needs and to help with long-term recovery. Victim support can be linked to crime prevention, as some approaches seek to prevent repeat victimisation. A recent study of DFID assistance for security and justice finds, however, that while victim support services for women (such as the provision of temporary refuge, medical and legal assistance and referral to other services) can help women in need, there is no evidence that they reduce the overall incidence of violence against women (ICAI, 2015).

Community-based policing

Donor-led policing programmes often use the language of ‘community policing’ or ‘community-based policing’ (SU, 2014). These approaches can be implemented by governments or local communities. They often share a focus on partnership, community consent, accountability, and proactive and problem-solving approaches to crime. However, these concepts are ambiguous. They are used to headline a variety of programmes, including zero-tolerance policing, intelligence-led policing, and improving responsiveness to local priorities (Denney & Jenkins, 2013).

Community-based approaches are popular due to perceptions that they can build on community initiatives and foster local ownership. However, evidence as to whether such approaches are achieving their objectives is contested. Risks associated with the programmes include the reinforcement of existing inequalities and power imbalances (Denney & Jenkins, 2013). While evidence from a review of community-based policing in South Africa suggests that such approaches can help increase public confidence in the police, there is no evidence that such approaches can reduce crime (Pelser, 2000).

The potential risks of community-based policing suggest more pragmatic approaches to policing assistance (SU, 2014). Hills (2008) draws on evidence from Nigeria to suggest that reform is an iterative and gradual process: Nigeria adopted the language and organisational features of community-based policing in 2005, yet its police force remains politicised, under-resourced, inadequately trained, corrupt and exploitative. There is no evidence to suggest that political leaders insincerely implemented reforms. Rather, the reforms were based on domestic realities and an understanding of the restrictive political environment. Even these flawed reforms have improved public attitudes to the police.

  • Baker, B. (2008). Beyond the Tarmac Road: Local Forms of Policing in Sierra Leone and Rwanda. Review of African Political Economy, 35(118), 555-570.
    See document online
  • Denney, L., & Jenkins, S. (2013). Securing communities: The what and the how of community policing. London: ODI.
    See document online
  • Hills, A. (2008). The dialectic of police reform in Nigeria. Journal of Modern African Studies, 46(2), 215-234.
    See document online
  • ICAI. (2015). Review of UK development assistance for security and justice. London: Independent Commission for Aid Impact. See document online.
  • Pelser, E. (2000). An Overview of Community Policing in South Africa. In I. Clegg, R. Hunt & J. Whetton. Policy Guidance on Support to Policing in Developing Countries. Swansea: University of Wales.
    See document online
  • SU. (2014). Policing the context: Principles and guidance to inform international policing assistance. London: Stabilisation Unit. See document online.