Across the globe, the primary point of contact many citizens have with their government is a police officer. Competent, honest and effective law enforcement is a mainstay of the rule of law. Insufficient or ineffective investment in the public security sector can result in weak or non-functioning security institutions, unable to respond to or deter crime and violence. Given the extraordinary power and authority vested in the police, accountability is particularly important in addressing problems of corruption, discrimination, abuse of power and anti-democratic use of police. For these to be exposed and addressed requires sound governance and accountability of the police, supported by transparency.
Countries organise their police systems in different ways. Most of them have more than one police force, for example national, state or regional police, local or municipal police, gendarmerie, and judicial police. Some also undertake military duties, and in some cases military forces may supplement national police forces in national emergencies or, in specific circumstances that are clearly defined and restricted under law, help carry out basic police functions. There may also be special police forces or units such as tax and military (or para-military) and drug enforcement police. Whatever the form the police and public security forces take, it is important that information about laws and the way they are enforced is open to the public, and that policing is accountable. As with any other public service, the police force is paid for by the public and therefore should be ultimately accountable to citizens. Issues of security and safety are of profound concern to the entire population but are often ‘owned’ by police and political authorities.
Key principles of democratic policing are;
- Police give priority to serving the needs of individual citizens and private groups
- Police are accountable to law
- Police respect and protect human rights, particularly those necessary for unfettered democracy
- Police are professional and transparent in their activities (Bruce and Nelid, 2005)
The establishment and consolidation of democratic policing require that governments see the police as an instrument for protecting the safety and democratic rights of the people, and establish mechanisms and institutions to ensure that police are accountable and act with integrity. A further concern is that police themselves are fairly treated by their own institution – police corruption often takes a heavy toll on officers’ conditions of service – and this in turn has direct outcomes for service delivery and police efficiency.
Going beyond this, it is increasingly recognised that community participation is crucial to enhancing safety and public order, solving and preventing crime. Police departments enjoy greater support when the public understand police procedures, believes that they are fair and that officers are held accountable for their actions and performance. Active participation by local people requires a new approach to policing (often termed ‘community policing’ ) in which the police are better integrated into communities, are seen to listen and respond to concerns, and actively engage people and communities. This involves a change in organisational values, management style, training and evaluation of police officers. The benefits of this approach come in better community relations, improved police legitimacy and public support, more effective problem solving and increased information for the police (OSCE, 2008).
New technologies open up new opportunities for collecting evidence, targeting police resources and enhancing efficiency, and monitoring the performance and conduct of police, but they also raise important privacy concerns, which need to be addressed with robust safeguards.