What We Can Learn From the United Nations About Reforming the Police

A UN Police officer from Cameroon, serving with the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), visits a police station in Bangui to meet with police and monitor policing and standards. (UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe)

Legitimacy and trust in the eyes of the population and community it is set to serve has always been central to a well-functioning police service. This is true whether it is a police service in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, or the United States. And if the trust of the population is eroded, the effectiveness of the police is undermined and, more importantly, a perception of division between groups may be spurred. This can seemingly justify alternative security structures, which ultimately makes the population as a whole less secure.

Recent events in the US and across the world have rightfully put the spotlight on the legitimate function of the police, and increased calls for different forms of police reform. The United Nations has worked to address these questions for a long time in some of the most conflict-affected nations in the world, and there are important lessons that the broader global community can be learn from this work.

UN Police Work and Mandate

The UN deploys almost 10,000 police officers contributed by its member states in peacekeeping missions and special political missions around the world. The mandates for the police deployments in varying degrees encompass building and supporting the host state’s police capacity to prevent and detect crime, protect life and property, and maintain public order and safety in adherence to the rule of law and international human rights law. In some missions—for example, earlier peace operations in East Timor and Kosovo—the UN police have also had de facto executive authority, essentially being the interim police authority in the country.[1]

Working to build capacity and supporting prevention and detection of crime often entails some level of reform of the police institutions of the country involved. In Haiti, UN police have for many years been involved in reforming the Haitian National Police, including adapting its administrative structure and internal decision-making hierarchy, revamping police training curriculum and its police academy, and working to enhance its local and community presence in the country. In Somalia, the UN police component has worked to establish a whole new federal and regional national police structure.

Developing the UN’s Policing Approach

As UN policing mandates developed, and the deployment of police officers in blue berets to peace operations increased in the early 2000s, it became clear that the UN needed to establish some common ground for the kind of policing approach it was to work towards establishing in host states.

Policing also needed to be viewed as more than a security function (e.g., crowd control), and as resting on the main pillars of rule of law and human rights in democratic societies. States are obliged to respect, protect, and ensure human rights in their executive functions, such as policing. Policing, and especially the use of force, is regulated within the legal framework of international human rights law—as compared to the use of force in war that is regulated by international humanitarian law. It is important to remember that these two different legal frameworks for use of force are applicable in very different circumstances, against different types of targets (combatants vs. civilians), and in very different ways.

After a comprehensive process, with the support of member states, the UN in 2014 published the Strategic Guidance Framework for International Policing (SGF), aiming to define the “what” of UN policing and ensuring a more consistent and harmonized approach to police reform.

The UN policy consists of four guideline documents that describe how to work in the four core areas of police administration, police capacity-building and development, police command, and police operations. There are also additional manuals to describe more specific police tasks, such as community-oriented policing and intelligence-led policing.

What We Can Learn from the UN

Because the UN is present in different countries with varying administrative structures, conflict history, geography, and demography, the big challenge has been to find a way to describe the policing function in society that transcends these factors. When working in an environment where sometimes large parts of the rule of law, justice, and police sectors are functioning at a very low level, or even non-existent—as in many swathes of land in countries in the Sahel—it becomes necessary to break down and describe what policing actually is, and what function it is intended to serve in the whole of society.

The result is that the basic function of policing, and the value of the service policing is intended to provide, is not all that different from country to country. The SGF aims to capture these notions in its definition of policing, namely that is is the prevention, detection and investigation of crime, the protection of persons and property and the maintenance of public order and safety. The SGF also stipulates that police and law enforcement officials have the obligation to respect and protect human rights, including the right to life, liberty and security of the person.

While UN police generally operate in post-conflict settings, the ideas of accountability, trust, and efficiency that underpin their functioning can be held to apply to any police service in most contexts. Of particular value is that UN policing demands that the basic questions on policing are addressed and appropriately answered for each specific context, which makes it particularly suitable for guiding police reform in times of crisis elsewhere, and in environments generally considered stable.

A Representative, Responsive, and Accountable Police Service

The SGF describes the need for police to be accountable to the law, to the public, and to civilian democratic oversight bodies. There also needs to be effective mechanisms for accountability over police conduct, including human rights violations. This language reflects what is stated in the UN’s Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials as well as different guidance produced by the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Being representative means that the composition of the police cadre should reflect that of the community it serves. The way police recruitment is conducted plays a large role in this. The UN assists several countries in designing and conducting such recruitment and assessment of new officers. Representative policing also means ensuring that the rights of all are protected, promoted, and respected without distinction to factors such as race, sex, religion, minority status, or language.

Another aspect central to engendering trust from the population is for the police to be responsive to the needs and expectations of the public when it comes to preventing and detecting crime and maintaining public order and safety. The public also has a legitimate expectation that government services that are funded by taxpayers should be organized in an efficient manner and make the best use of the funds they receive to attain maximum effectiveness and value for its citizens.

In many of the contexts where UN police are deployed police services are often wholly underfunded and mired with corruption, but even some of the most well-funded police services in the world suffer from administrative inefficiencies that hinder the core mission of providing responsive policing and addressing the crime concerns of citizens. Indeed, when my own country, Sweden, set out to reorganize its national police authority a few years ago, one of the three main objectives of the reform was to ensure a more efficient police service.

While visiting one of the UN peacekeeping operations in the field, I was told how in one area where reform initiatives had been supported in the police and justice sector, individuals were now starting to report crime again to the police, a clear indication that a basic level of trust in its local police had been reached.

A third leg necessary for trust in the police to be built is the existence of robust accountability mechanisms. These mechanisms should strive to uphold the SGF’s definition of accountability as described above. Transparency is also necessary, to ensure that the oversight can function.

Policing the Community—Community-Oriented Policing

Early on, the UN recognized that community problems require community-engaged solutions and support. Effort was therefore made to support local police to build a community-oriented policing approach. This is defined in the SGF as a “strategy for encouraging the public to act as partners with the police in preventing and managing crime as well as other aspects of security and order based on the needs of the community.”

Working together with the community is not a novel approach by policing services. It has been successfully employed as a model in police agencies around the world. In the city of Camden in the US, after the police force was reformed (and reconstituted) in 2013, relations between the police and community improved, making the community more inclined to share information with the police about crime and help the police deal with different problems they are faced with.

The UN has been able to use a similar community-oriented policing model in more conflict and crime prone areas where it has peace operations, working with four main elements: mobilizing communities, responding to communities, solving recurrent problems, and consulting with communities. In this way, community-oriented policing closely mirrors some of the central tenets of building trust described above. This community-oriented approach is an essential part of peacebuilding in these countries.

Demilitarization of Police

One issue that has been part of recent conversations about police is the issue of militarization. This includes the transfer of military-grade weaponry and equipment to the police.

The problem is that such militarization in equipment leads to adaptation of military tactics. Whereas the military is trained to face military forces, deploying such equipment and tactics on a civilian population creates a dangerous situation.

This has also been clearly experienced by the UN when a peace operation’s military component has been tasked or a host country has deployed its own military to handle civil unrest or public order issues, including demonstrations during elections. This creates a clear mismatch in the use of force which is why a more civilian-oriented approach to public order management is necessary.

Reform is Possible

While every police and law enforcement agency operates within a unique set of circumstances and contexts, breaking down the elements of what essentially constitutes the policing function in society helps us understand how to structure these public service institutions to better serve the public.

The police are often called the first and most visible representative of the state for most individuals. This is a two-edged sword where any trust gained can quickly be lost. But close contact with the population is also a chance to rebuild that trust by showing results and addressing the legitimate concerns of the public. As mentioned, trust is central for the police, or any government public service agency (e.g., health authorities, as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has shown) to be able to function and deliver on their mandate.

The UN has, through its different peace operations around the world, collected unique experience over many years in building and reforming police services, in close collaboration with host states, that should be studied further and applied in other contexts. This experience makes clear that reform is possible with the right amount of buy-in from the decision-makers.

John Billow is Justice counsellor and police adviser at the Permanent Mission of Sweden to the UN in New York. He tweets @JohnBillow. The views expressed in this article are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any government or organization.

[1] Current mandates that authorize the mission as a whole to act under Chapter VII of the UN Charter and with all necessary means to protect civilians, for example, suggest that police actors have been afforded an authority in missions that are of an executive character.