A recent regulation on community policing to prevent violent extremism has provoked a constructive debate. Critics and wary observers worry that further civilian involvement in law enforcement activities will forge divisions and encourage neighbors to spy on one another, especially in a polarized political context.
But while past practice may have seen street-level informants support vast state surveillance networks, modern community policing philosophy is intended to empower civil society vis-à-vis the government. The aim is not to instruct communities about any particular threat or subversive activity, but to build trust between police and the people they are committed to protecting.
Open lines of mutual communication will only develop if people believe that the police have the community’s best interests at heart. Residents need to view their local officers as approachable, transparent and accountable for their actions.
The renewed emphasis on community policing is part of an aspirational national plan of action on preventing and countering violent extremism (RAN PE Perpres No.2/2021) issued last month.
Intended to be a ‘living document’, the strategy highlights principles of human rights, rule of law, gender mainstreaming and the specific rights and safety of young people. The regulatory mechanism is also considered a key tool for coordinating the activities and input of the many stakeholders required for an effective prevention strategy.
Concern that law enforcement may co-opt people to scrutinize their neighbors comes from the new regulation’s wording of Article 2.1, which “invites the public” to work in partnership with police to “detect and identify problems to community security and order in their area and to find solutions”.
This sentence has actually been taken from Police Regulation No.3/2015 on community policing, which elaborates by stressing the importance of collaboration and reciprocity. The community is not meant to be an “object of guidance” but an “active subject and partner” – as residents are best placed to determine local threats and their root causes.
Terrorist networks in Indonesia have been influenced by international events and organizations over the past ten years in particular. Yet Indonesia’s successful counterterrorism police investigations and prosecutions during this period have also splintered the organizations involved. Today, the threat largely comes from small autonomous groups of people operating in unassuming neighborhoods.
Security agencies in many nations have applied similar pressure on violent extremist activity in recent years, arresting hundreds of suspects, dismantling organized networks and forcing would-be terrorists to operate in small close-knit groups or by themselves. The globally engaged leaders of organizations such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda have encouraged these localized attacks, moving from a strategy of direction to general inspiration.
In this context, local knowledge has become an important piece of the prevention puzzle. Law enforcement officers in different nations use informants to find out what’s happening on the ground, but these actual spies can prove counterproductive if whole segments of communities start to feel like suspects. Some counterterrorism police teams in the United Kingdom reportedly switched from covert intelligence collection to building networks of contacts through open discussions about their role and objectives, which they deemed more effective.
The crucial detail about gleaning strategic information from neighborhood residents, however, is that it must be the result of police officers building relationships within communities, rather than the motivation for collaboration. Frequent engagement over cups of tea is not enough – citizens have to view their local police as legitimate and fair.
This involves a concept known as procedural justice, which is an essential foundation for productive engagement between police and the public. According to Yale University psychologist Tom Tyler, there are four crucial requirements: People need clear opportunities to communicate their concerns to police, they need to view the police as acting with transparency and neutrality, they need to believe that police are trying to do what is best for the community, and police officers must treat everyone with respect and dignity.
Research in Europe has shown that the adoption of these principles leads to greater trust in police officers, departments and institutions. In fact, a 2013 study by Hough, Jackson and Bradford found that the “quality of relations between police and public” was even more important for perceptions of police legitimacy than the observed competency of officers.
In Indonesia, there may be some way to go before genuine relationships between communities and police develop to the point of collective problem-solving. But the latest intention to incorporate a community policing approach should be welcomed, provided it focuses primarily on building trust and legitimacy, and not co-opting informants for short-term benefits.
When National Counterterrorism Agency (BNPT) head Boy Rafli Amar was asked about the community policing article in the new regulation, he said in a written statement that it was “intended to improve the professionalism of the National Police, particularly the Bhabinkamtibmas [police’s security and public order officers], so they can establish partnerships between the public and the police in line with the principles of the action plan, such as human rights [and] rule of law”.
If the idea was to recruit neighborhood vigilantes through a crash course in some particular definition of violent extremism, the strategy would not only fail but create additional (and obvious) problems. But it does seem the genuine objective is to improve the community policing function of the National Police, with an eye toward preventing violence and addressing grievances.
The question is whether some of the ingrained practices and cultures within the National Police will present awkward obstacles for this grassroots model. Without sufficient transparency and accountability, authentic partnerships between police and communities are difficult to develop.
Cameron Sumpter is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. Indah Amaritasari is a Lecturer at Bhayangkara Jakarta Raya University and associate of the National Security Center (NSC) in Jakarta.