Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Police development: more bang for your buck

This morning, Andrew Exum highlighted a throwaway piece in the Washington Post on the police in Egypt. Like many unstable and/or despotic states, the police forces are among the greatest threats to the citizens of those countries. Whereas in most Western countries the police exist to protect the people, in most of the rest of the world the police exist to protect the state from the people. As you can imagine, governments love and people hate this setup. In cases like Egypt, changing the police forces to protect the people can go a long a way to improving the stability of the country - especially after they've tried and failed to suppress the population.

Change of this nature requires significant work on not just the training of police, but cultural adaptation and development. Evolving the mindset of established forces can take a long time, if it's not a generational effort. Sacking the police and starting over usually fails as well. Just like disbanding militaries, firing armed and trained policemen introduces a destabilizing force onto the streets; a force that had had better luck with the previous regime (see Iraq). It also presents the difficulty of vetting new police, often in countries with low literacy (see Afghanistan). Mere training programs from the U.S. also do not even begin to address the problem - often the police are already moderately trained. While improving their skills and capabilities are necessary, developing them as professional police requires a change in mindset and should be the focus of U.S. police assistance. The entirety of the literature on this topic supports this, even if development doesn't always do the trick (obviously, the host nation needs to really want to change its ways).

Ex is right in the gist of his post - if we're invited to help these newly-democratizing nations, we should start with the police. I diverge from his position in that we shouldn't start a training program, we should initiate a police development program (again, if invited to do so). Funding-wise, a small team of police development experts that help the Egyptians revamp their police structure, policies, and police academy curriculum would provide dividends much greater than the investment. This should be our focus in the region, not military aid, which is expensive for the USG and provides little return in stability or U.S. national objectives.

For those of you not in the small circle of people and organizations that work on police development issues, the USG's primary organization for doing this is the International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP). (Disclosure: With my previous company I did some work with ICITAP, but they were never a client.) This is a fantastic program within the Department of Justice that I was very impressed with, both here in Washington and in the field. And they really get it, which is why I'm giving them this free advertisement. They also come in a quite cost effective as they have relatively small staff and are funded by other USG agencies when implementing programs abroad. The challenges to getting them out into the field, though, is that they have a relatively small staff and are funded by other USG agencies when implementing programs abroad. In spite of their good work in many places (see Kosovo, Iraq, Panama, and a host of others), they aren't always the first agency used for U.S. police programs. Often, train and equip contracts are used first - sometimes succeeding, but often not and then require ICITAP expertise to sort things out. Another challenge for ICITAP is that police development often takes 10 or more years if done correctly, which is often beyond the political and budgetary horizons of the U.S., so the U.S. often chooses haste over right. We need to stop doing that.

The point of all of this is to say that police development is what the U.S. should focus their efforts on if we're asked to asked to help out in these countries. And we're asked to do so, the USG should support ICITAP missions to conduct these development and reform operations (in conjunction with their their DoJ OPDAT brethren and DoS INL training programs). In these days of governmental austerity, it is a cost effective way to meet USG objectives and the needs of the local governments and people.


  1. This is a good post on an important subject. An even smaller group of people understand police training than the training and equipping of national military forces (which is already a very, very, almost vanishingly small group).

    First, I'm going to reprint the comment I made on AM on this subject: For what it's worth, there's a police training prohibition associated with Foreign Military Finance (which is the $1.3B you mention). But 22 U.S.C. Sec. 2420(b)(6) allows an exception "with respect to assistance provided to reconstitute civilian police authority and capability in the post-conflict restoration of host nation infrastructure for the purposes of supporting a nation emerging from instability, and the provision of professional public safety training, to include training in internationally recognized standards of human rights, the rule of law, anti-corruption, and the promotion of civilian police roles that support democracy."

    The long and the short of it: depending on how you interpret this provision, Egypt could probably purchase police training from the USG with some portion of that FMF money. This would, of course, require the Egyptian government to make the determination that it actually wanted to spend that cash on police training, which seems unlikely so long as the army's in charge (as it would divert funds that would otherwise be used to purchase military materiel, training, and education).

    Note that this exception to the prohibition focuses on the sort of general rule-of-law mentoring that Jason advocates above, NOT just the technical aspects of police training.

    Second, I want to address a related point that Jason made about ICITAP: In spite of their good work in many places (see Kosovo, Iraq, Panama, and a host of others), they aren't always the first agency used for U.S. police programs. Often, train and equip contracts are used first - sometimes succeeding, but often not and then require ICITAP expertise to sort things out.

    There are a whole lot of explanations for this, but so far as I can tell the mostly they boil down to capacity arguments that are justified by levels of violence. In theaters of ongoing U.S. operations, DoD has been granted special authority to train police. (This training has been performed both by uniformed American military personnel and by contractors.) The State Department is typically responsible for police training in all other instances, and they often use contractors (particularly DynCorp). Why? Well, we're supposed to figure it's because training police in war zones (or conflict-ridden developing countries) is especially dangerous, and it is. But my impression is the real reason is that large-scale expeditionary police-trainig capacity simply doesn't exist at an adequate level in the USG, ICITAP or otherwise.

    And finally, I think it's a little too simple to say that police training provides return on investment while "military aid... is expensive for the USG and provides little return in stability or U.S. national objectives." Frankly, the positive effects of both types of assistance are really, really difficult to quantify. Furthermore, specific types of training and other technical assistance are useless if there's no broader bilateral relationship to support such efforts, and we can't ignore the sort of macro-level relationship-building (of which military assistance and development aid are both a part) that facilitates more tailored capability-building initiatives. ROI on aid is a much bigger (and quite distinct) topic, though, and I hope to take it up (eventually) in a separate post.

    Anyway, good stuff, Jason.

  2. Yeah, you're right on the ROI bit. It is much more expensive though for military assistance, because of the equipment, etc. I should have caveated those statements with "in these cases", where I do think police development after a civilian government is in place would get us a better return on Egyptian stability than lots of military aid. But that's just conjecture.

    You're also right that large-scale policing capacity doesn't exist. ICITAP and INL can scale with contracts, but the USG doesn't keep that kind of staff on payroll. I don't think those types of programs help most of the time, but there's a book that could be (and has been) written.

  3. You make a great point about the development of rule of law, but I think that the issue goes deeper. Rule of law at the street level means police that are seen as protectors by the population; not potential predators. But it doesn't stop there. The court system must also be looked at. It is often a systemic problem, with justice and conflict resolution all suffering from a lack of legitimacy that is born of either corruption or suppression, often both.

    It is possible that the judicial system in Egypt, for example, is sound while the police suffer from image problems and require re-training. I think it unlikely. These are the courts that have been used successfully for decades to shunt dissidents into the prisons and jails. So, the judicial system likely suffers from a similar distrust among Egyptians.

    We are currently woefully under-prepared for such undertakings. While effective agencies and methods have been developed, such as the ICITAP, they are often under-utilized and unsupported by required complimentary efforts in other, directly related areas. In Afghanistan, we are beginning to see closer inter-agency coordination in security, governance and development, but a huge lack of improvement in the courts. This is despite some efforts to unsnarl the unruly ball of yarn that is the Afghan judicial system. These efforts still do not carry the air of crisis that they actually are faced with. Courts are a key feature in rule of law. To this point, America and the international community have demonstrated a great inability to contribute significantly to the development of an effective and trusted judicial system in developing countries. Add to this the difficulty in adjusting to Islamic law and it adds up to a huge challenge.

    Police development is an important issue. I have been a uniformed (Army) advisor/trainer for the police in Afghanistan, and have seen the effects of an ill-trained and ill-led police force unsupported by a corrupt legal system. A holistic approach must include not only justice/conflict resolution, but also administration of other government agencies. Capacity to govern in one area, unsupported by capacity in other areas, will eventually degrade into a lack of legitimacy overall.

    There are plenty of concerned people in government service who realize that capacity building and assistance is potentially a great use of our foreign policy. Many of them are not in positions to influence the applications we will choose in the coming months. This by no means dooms evolving societies, but it does not support their health, either. It is in our best interests that these reforms succeed and that these movements are successful, no doubt. But I do not believe that we are currently adept at providing productive assistance in a holistic fashion.

    What we do in the coming months and years will be done with good intentions, but the outcomes will be mixed. Meanwhile, we will struggle with the shortcomings that are becoming apparent in our overall approach to dealing with the emergence of democratic ideals in other societies. Perhaps in the long run we will develop a holistic and integrated approach to providing real assistance (...teach a man to fish...) to foster healthy developing societies. While welcome, the developments in the ME have come at a time when we are unprepared to do so.

  4. Very good and very important.

    We should build a camp somewhere with full FOB luxury and offer crashcourses. Now that they are free, they wont run away like they used to. Community policing. Add to that a 1-year internet group-follow up (give em all a laptop instead of a gunsystem) where you offer additional courses, and you have a low cost high impact democracy-buiulding move.

    I would like to add that similar institution-to-institution work building on a European model should include all emergency services, as well as teachers in practical courses. And of course, the labour unions of Europe should be involved to build a structure for a semi-welfare state, where the workers have a voice. Socialism in many US eyes, I know, but the work par examnple norwegian LO laid down in East Europe just after the wall fell was impressive, lots of workshops and designated councillors working 3 month shifts.

  5. PS: We should give this aid as a gift, not force them to buy it. It could be funded on 3-400 millions, wich is Nothing.

  6. To me, the issues (problems) are two-fold:

    1) Time. How long does it take to build capacity in order to stabilize a regime, and how long does a regime have in order to be stabilized? The window of opportunity to put the type of police Abu M advocates on the streets of Egypt is relatively small, I suspect. We're still at about the 15 June 1789 point of the Egyptian regime change, but how much longer before "bad things" start happening is unclear to me. Additionally, my (admittedly very limited) knowledge of Palestinian security force building is that it has been long and slow, if (perhaps as a result) fairly successful.

    2) Nation-building. By choosing to train (or equip, for that matter) police, we are engaging in nation-building. Needless to say, some have found a few problems with the concept. I'll point out two. First, it is of course a commitment we may be reticent to undertake, and also one which may entail a fair degree of potential blowback and complex second- and third-order effects. (Wait until those first legitimate, democratic protests devolve into US-made and -furnished truncheons hitting protesters? Yes, I know the counterargument is that basic policing functions, like riot control, would be even more poor in the absence of assistance. Yet, still.) More generally, can one "grow" police outside of the society from which they "originate?" Can one build a desired state from a perhaps analytically and actually distinct society? That may be too academic, and/or devoid of content and meaning. I suppose what I'm trying to say is, we can provide assistance, but at the end of the day, I suspect an autonomous and professional police force or forces is less likely than a set of individuals and factions beholden to something or somethings else. I'm still not acquiring the precision I'd like, but hopefully my point is clearer.


  7. ADTS - your second point is excellent, but I'd alter the frame of analysis slightly. Agree that the police shouldn't be 'grown' outside of their society, and would go further to point out that effective SSR has to include security governance institutions as well. The problem isn't with nation-building per se - it's with building to a plan that isn't firmly founded in the socio-political and economic realities of the nation in question. Too many conflate deeply flawed implementation with the fundamental merits of the concept (and in doing so, ignore an enormous body of literature and expertise).

    The real challenge should be developing the plan, and then adapting it over time as necessary, and in collaboration with the evolving oversight institutions. As you rightly point out, following those principles could prove challenging for the US in Egypt, although the work with Palestinian security forces suggests it's not impossible.

    Lil should chime in here - I believe she knows more about SSR than the rest of us.

  8. MK:

    I think "security governance institutions" is probably the phrase that would have been useful to me. Infinite regress would seem to be a problem - who will police the police? who will police those who police the police? until one asks, or assumes, there will be a state equipped with the requisite autonomous institutions to govern itself sufficiently.


  9. Jason--I agree that police development is extremely important and that we lack capacity, within the USG, to do it. I think it's important to point out that Dyncorp has done a terrible, terrible, almost downright criminal job in Afghanistan. I don't know as much about contractor support to police training in Iraq but my impression is it wasn't much better.

    MK--that's exactly right, not grounding in the political/social realities of the country. That's why current "good practice" in SSR suggests the use, at multiple steps, of comprehensive popular consultative processes so that SSR planners and organizers understand the requirements and pitfalls of structuring any part of the system in any particular way. These processes are expensive and time consuming, ideally you go to almost every village several times (good case study on doing this right: Sierra Leone).

    ADTS--good points. I think most police capacity building experts agree that in countries where you're starting literally from scratch after more than 15 years of war, and where there was no legitimate police presence before conflict--eg Liberia, DRC, Afghanistan--it's a generational effort. I mean between building the actual force and then as MK said connecting it to security governance institutions, or a security system--actually the SSR field is increasingly calling itself JSSR for justice and security system reform--is going to take a lot of time.

    In terms of the infinite regress point you make, that's why these efforts need to be part of a system. You don't get three silos and you're done. I think of it more as a circle I suppose where the oversight mechanisms end up mutually reinforcing so that the institutions are basically forced to keep each other accountable. To the institutional/government controls, you of course add media and civil society organizations...Anyway, yes, it's supposed to end up autonomous enough that it governs itself reasonably well.

  10. Old Blue--Welcome back (somehow your post wasn't showing up yesterday).Agree completely on your points.

    ADTS--one more thing, on building from the outside. You're right and this is why an important part of successful (or at least not counter-productive) JSSR is the comprehensive popular consultative processes I mentioned: what do citizens (not us) view as the roles of the different parts of the security forces, which institutions should govern them, who decides how they should be deployed, what are processes for filing complaints against them, how are these forces supported (pay, housing,pensions, support to families in case of injury or death etc). These consultative processes basically end up doing more for "local ownership" than putting someone we think can trust in charge and relying on their judgment. It's striking though that leaders (both in the international community and the host nation) tend to dismiss them as too onerous (true) and basically assert that they know what people want, think is important, and will provide legitimacy.

  11. Some thoughts from having been directly involved in police training in two Latin American countries, and having watched it firsthand in two other Latin American countries and in Afghanistan:

    One of the weaknesses with State Department (INL) and other civilian training programs is that they are based primarily on classroom instruction. This is glaringly inadequate in places like Iraq and Afghanistan where the police play a paramilitary role and require tactical skills. These environments require field training and instructors who can live with the trainees in order to promote unit cohesion, hence the transfer of this mission to DoD to use SF-style training methods.

    A psychological hang up that I have seen in many police trainers - ranging from ICITAP to CSTC-A - is a technical orientation expressed as "we don't do politics." In order to have any kind of permanent effect, trainers not only need to impart skills, they also have to understand power relationships, political intrigues, and cultural attitudes inherent in the training audiences and the institutions to which they belong. (This distaste for "politics" is not unique to trainers, many development experts have the same attitude.)

    One of the reasons that police training, and Security Sector Reform in general, is such a difficult task is that it only one part of a Rule of Law framework that requires all parts to function properly. A competent and professional police force is useless unless the prosecutors, courts, and prisons are also functioning in an efficient manner. And no reforms will have any permanence unless the host nation expresses political will for reform by demonstrating a cultural intolerance of impunity and corruption.

  12. Interesting. I guess the Post articles prompted some reflections on police reform in Egypt. I had my take yesterday (it's in French though): http://middleeastenfrancais.blogspot.com/2011/03/la-reforme-du-secteur-de-la-police-en.html

  13. Merci Vivien--je ne connaissais pas ton blog mais il me semble interessant.


  14. police may catch thieves or rapists etc, once in a while, especially if it is not one of their own. as to where they stand on state vs. citizen they act as their anti riot gear suggests; uniformly.

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