On November 18, 2018 an intoxicated off-duty police officer attending a party in Kulu-Hun opened fire on partygoers, killing three young men and injuring five. The tragic incident has sparked a public discussion about PNTL’s ability to regulate the use of firearms by off-duty officers and has caused some to question the need for police officers to carry guns in the first place. In this blog, Fundasaun Mahein (FM) evaluates both the rules and procedures governing firearm use by off-duty officers and the role of guns in policing.
In theory, the use of guns is subject to strict regulation by PNTL. Police officers are allowed to carry guns while on duty, however when they finish their shifts and go home for the day, they must check their guns back into their local armory. The armory must register when guns are checked in and checked out, producing a running record of all guns in circulation.
In reality, this does not happen. Police officers often fail to check their guns in when their shift ends, and instead carry their weapons with them intotheir daily lives. This leads to situations in which ununiformed, off-duty police officers – essentially civilians – remain armed even as they go to bars, to parties, and to community events. In these situations, something as simple as drunken argument can quickly escalate into an armed confrontation in which civilians are injured or killed. Moreover, the mere fact that off-duty officers carry guns might contribute to feelings of impunity or being ‘above the law’, causing officers to act more aggressively than they would have if unarmed.
The November 18 incident and others like it reveal that PNTL’s system for regulating firearm use suffers from disorganization and lack of enforcement. PNTL superiors have done an inadequate job maintaining armory records and actively tracking guns to ensure they are not used outside of working hours. They have also failed to communicate to their subordinates the importance of complying with PNTL gun regulations and to take disciplinary action against those who break firearm rules, even if such infractions do not result in violence.
Thus poor enforcement of gun regulations is not just a matter of a few irresponsible police officers; it reflects an inability or unwillingness on the part of PNTL as an institution to implement its own policies. Fundasaun Mahein (FM) recommends that PNTL superiors take responsibility for lapses in the control of firearms and take active steps to reform the system. First, PNTL should launch a review its registration system to ensure that it is up to the task of recording all firearms checked into and checked out of armories. Second, it should perform an audit of armories to ensure records reflect reality. What is the magnitude of the problem of loose guns? Is unauthorized use of firearms an exception to the rule, or are large numbers of guns unaccounted for? An audit would help answer this question and identify the potential for future violent incidents. Third, PNTL must get serious about taking disciplinary actions against any police officer discovered to have carried a firearm while off duty. Punishing police officers for failing to turn in guns would send a strong message to the whole police force that the era of loose discipline and unprofessionalism must come to an end.
In addition to calls for stricter regulation of guns within PNTL, some members of the public have questioned whether PNTL members need to carry guns at all. Private gun ownership in Timor-Leste is very low, meaning that in almost all situations the police should be able to maintain control through non-lethal means. Moreover, PNTL has decided to adopt a community policing approach in which police officers work with the community to gather intelligence on potential issues and help resolve them without guns or the use of force. For example, Suku Police Officers (OPS) do not carry guns, yet the communities in which they operate report low crime levels and remarkably high trust between civilians and police. When police officers do not carry weapons, civilians often feel more comfortable to approaching them, leading to a collaborative relationship between police and civilians rather than a hierarchical one.
Moreover, it is often the case that police officers that carry guns are more likely to use them, even when it is unnecessary, while unarmed police officers find alternative ways to deescalate situations. In the United Kingdom,police officers do not usually carry firearms and incidents of police shooting are relatively rare. However in the United States, a highly militarized and heavily armed police force results in hundreds of police shootings of civilians every year. Thus, allowing all or most police officers to carry guns might actually be counterproductive to community safety and security.
Nevertheless, some members of PNTL and the public worry that unarmed police officers may have difficulty responding to emergency situations. If there were an incident of violence among youth, for example, an armed police officer could maintain effective control over dozens of civilians, while an unarmed officer might struggle to do so.
A possible solution is for police officers to perform their normal, day-to-day duties without a firearm, but to keep guns on hand in the local armory, which they can access only in the case of an emergency. This proposal would strike a good balance between ensuring police officers maintain a non-intimidating presence in their communities, while still allowing them to access weapons if absolutely necessary. However, this solution would still require strict regulation and tracking of guns, clear guidelines on when it is appropriate to use firearms, organized and reliable armory records,and tough disciplinary actions against officers who carry guns while off duty. Thus, FM urges PNTL to take immediate action to evaluate its gun regulations, audit its armories, and step up disciplinary actions against rule-breakers, and to be transparent with the public about what it is doing to prevent another tragedy.