Fundasaun Mahein (FM) wishes to draw attention to the excessively heavy weapons wielded by the National Police of Timor-Leste (PNTL) at checkpoints during the recent election period. Disproportionate weaponry intimidates people and undermines the relationship between police and ordinary citizens. During the election, PNTL officers at certain checkpoints carried automatic rifles and submachine guns (for example, the Pindad PM2 model). The PM2 even features a suppressor, which muffles the gun’s sound and obscures its muzzle flash at night. These weapons are designed for military special operations and counter-terrorism. They are totally inappropriate for ordinary traffic checkpoints in Timor-Leste.
Because gun crimes are extremely rare in Timor-Leste, police do not need to arm themselves with automatic weapons. If a situation does occur in which the police must use deadly force, the PNTL’s standard-issue Glock 19 9mm handgun will provide more than enough firepower. The PNTL should equip its officers appropriately in line with its laudable efforts at implementing community policing strategies.
The community policing model involves police officers working with communities to address the underlying problems that generate criminality and disorder. They do this by gathering intelligence from local communities, and cooperating with community security organizations such as the Suku Security Volunteers and the Community Policing Councils. Such intelligence gathering can only occur if community members feel safe approaching PNTL personnel. Citizens are unlikely to feel comfortable talking with an officer sporting military-grade weapons. Inappropriate armaments therefore actually undermine the PNTL’s ability to identify and solve local security issues.
The Public Order Battalion (BOP) particularly exemplifies the excessive arming of PNTL officers. The BOP is part of the Special Police Unit (UEP), which is tasked with responding to high-risk incidents. While other UEP units can justifiably carry heavy arms because they protect government officials or respond to gunfire incidents, the BOP’s role primarily consists of maintaining public order. This almost never requires the use of lethal force, meaning that the BOP does not need automatic weapons. Nonetheless, BOP personnel are commonly seen with assault rifles. This disproportionate weaponry causes unnecessary fear and reflects the militarized policing model introduced by the Portuguese National Republican Guard. BOP officers should limit themselves to appropriate weaponry in order to continue developing the model of community policing.
FM believes that a cooperative, community-based approach will deliver better results than an interventionist model involving heavy-handed responses to outbreaks of violence. Security forces perform their responsibilities best in close cooperation with the communities they protect. Such focus on relationship-building represents a far more effective approach to security than wielding unnecessary and intimidating weaponry. Therefore, FM recommends that:
1) PNTL officers should not carry automatic rifles or submachine guns except in unusually dangerous situations. The officers responding to such situations should be from UEP Units.
2) The PNTL should continue to mainstream community policing methods that prioritize constructive relationships between police and citizens.