Photo: The Asia Foundation’s CPC evaluation team
Two recent homicides in Dili have once again alerted Fundasaun Mahein to the growing problem of community violence, and the need for renewed action from state security authorities to combat this serious problem. Both crimes were committed by youth against youth amidst a proliferation of assaults over the New Year. Nation-wide, assault has become a nightly occurrence in what has become a deteriorating security situation. During the holidays, the National Police (PNTL) conducted operations in various communities aimed at reducing anti-social behaviour in the streets. However, PNTL lacks the resources to deal with the scale of the problem, especially in Dili where the population has trebled to over 350,000 since independence.
While the underlying causes of community violence and crime are complex (including high youth unemployment, limited education opportunities and the prevalence of Martial Arts groups), this article remains focussed on the immediate issue of community policing. In this respect, Fundasaun Mahein’s research has identified a critical need for an expanded model of policing based in the community to support PNTL.
Timor-Leste already has a functioning network of Community Policing Councils (CPCs) that reach into every suco in the country. The CPCs are structured around the suco councils, although the majority of members participate in a voluntary capacity. CPCs investigate civil problems involving actual or potential conflict. They intervene (preventatively if possible) and mediate between the parties to conflicts, before they escalate into criminal activity. Whenever crimes do occur, CPCs refer them to PNTL.
While research shows that CPCs are effective and successful in resolving local disputes, they fall short of their full potential. Through our observations, FM has identified many ways to significantly improve the performance of CPCs.
- Organisation: Currently, CPCs are loosely directed by two national authorities (Ministry of Administration and Ministry of the Interior). Because the instructions of the ministries are poorly coordinated and actual legal regulation of CPCs does not exist, CPCs are often confused about their responsibilities and operations. Hence, there is a need for greater clarity and more efficient communication between the two ministries, and between the ministries and the CPCs.
- Legal personality and payment: CPCs do not possess a legal personality, which means that CPC members cannot receive payment. If CPCs were accorded legal personality status, volunteers could be paid an allowance and therefore incentivised to become more proactive and engaged.
- Legal regulation, orientation and training: Poor inter-ministerial organisation, lack of a legal identity and the absence of a regulatory framework contribute to a third problem area, namely CPCs receive little attention and direction to delineate the scope of their power and activities. They receive limited broader recognition and support and so they tend to lack motivation and be uncertain how to intervene. They are therefore less effective than they could be or, at worst, may succumb to overreach by forgetting that they are only civilians. Community ‘police’, for example, are prone to becoming excessively authoritarian to the point where they imitate national police officers. CPCs need to operate within a legal framework, on the basis of which regulations, standards and training can be developed.
- Neighbourhood Watch: Fundasaun Mahein believes that the existing CPC model could be expanded by giving a more active role to the neighbourhood. We would suggest adapting, for example, the Australian crime prevention program of Neighbourhood Watch. That program reduces crime by encouraging the community to collaborate in monitoring and reporting suspicious activity to police. A Timorese version of Neighbourhood Watch could bring ‘neighbourhoods’ together to find ways of supporting, and enhance communication with, CPCs and PNTL. It could also include establishing neighbourhood patrols.
- Family involvement: As a final step, Neighbourhood Watch could be oriented towards working directly with families and internal family relationships. Parents could be motivated to engage more with their children, encouraging them to seek out opportunities for study, work, recreation and so on. Parents may also find it necessary to exert greater discipline over their teenagers, keep track of their comings and goings, and dissuade them from leaving the house at night if they suspect participation in unruly, drunken or violent behaviour.
- A new authoritative, inter-ministerial body: A ‘Department of Neighbourhood Watch and Family Relations’, for instance, could be set up to develop a regulatory and legal framework for CPCs and subsequently execute a constructive campaign and training program. Such an authority would design and administer the campaign with the input and support of civil society, while also coordinating the respective roles of the Ministry of State Administration and the Ministry of the Interior.
If the involvement of neighbourhoods and families in policing initiatives sounds excessive, we remind readers that community violence has reached intolerable proportions. In some areas, citizens are afraid to leave the house at night, while many other communities suffer from constant noise, fighting and other anti-social behaviour. Fundasaun Mahein believes that the only way to tackle the problem is to not only to upgrade the existing system of community policing but also to enrol every neighbourhood, family and individual into the practice of community policing. Given the inevitable complexity of such an intervention, Fundasaun Mahein calls for a national policy discussion to develop the proposed strategy.