Policing the peace

"The terrorist and the policeman both come from the same basket," wrote the novelist Joseph Conrad in The Secret Agent in 1907. A century later, the insight retains its resonance as British police are being asked to train local forces to fight terrorism in far-flung locations. Police officers seconded from UK forces are being dispatched to help their counterparts in trouble spots in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, East Timor and Africa.

Now officers on international secondment are being offered an online course in peace studies to help strengthen their contribution. The postgrad certificate - in international policing: peace support operations - is being offered for the first time this year by Stirling University in collaboration with the Scottish Police College and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It draws on ideas from education and politics.

Around 30 officers are doing it, though not all at the same time. The course leader, Richard Dockrell, says: “Deployments can be very demanding, and officers sometimes drop out of modules but not necessarily out of the programme. They return later, when things are quieter.” There are three intakes a year. Some students are in the UK awaiting deployment or having recently returned; others are abroad, in Jordan, Iraq, Kosovo, Bosnia or Sierra Leone. Some will go to Sudan, to advise the African Union.

Dockrell believes it is of value for officers to deepen their understanding of cultural contexts.

He points to the example of a senior police officer who encountered difficulties while training Iraqi police in Jordan. “The officer was female, and this group had a particular cultural notion of gender which made it difficult for them to relate to her. They found it difficult to understand why other officers would do what she said, and how she could train them.

“We would encourage the senior officer to think about the sources of her authority. One source is simply her rank within the police force, and another is her seniority, her years of experience and her professionalism. So we would encourage a style of leadership that involved her sharing her experiences of policing with the group to emphasise that seniority and to enable them to see her as an experienced police officer. She is a very competent and capable officer, and they did accept her. Perhaps she changed a few attitudes.”

Chain of command

The chain of command is often blurred. “In the UK, police officers will often work in situations where there is a clear hierarchy, and there is a chain of command. But that is less so abroad: they are working with other agencies, local forces, the UN, and NGOs.

“My background is in education, and the way things are done in schools has totally changed in recent years. There is a lot more emphasis on making things happen through empowering and persuading people. There is also lot of inter-agency working, where individuals may have the same goal but different priorities and different ways of working. We teach a style of leadership and management that is about team-building and motivation.”

Detective Superintendent Brian Donley, who is in charge of a group of 15 officers working in Bosnia, sees value in this approach: “We haven’t got any police powers, we have to achieve everything by persuasion.

“There are the religious divides and ethnic divides here and the country isn’t working together all that well. We are working with them and with other European police forces. We are advising on police methods and investigation methods, and our focus is organised crime. Educating our officers in this way will hopefully get them to focus on the issues we are facing, and the best way of dealing with them.”

John Hendley, a retired police officer, is part of the team in Bosnia. While he advises on methods of investigation, he is also studying the course. “I am finding it interesting and stimulating. I am not sure yet what practical applications I will find, although it is certainly true that we don’t have any authority here. All we can do is to advise. We can only achieve things through other people.”

He has one problem with his studies: “It is difficult to have a debate or a conversation on a computer, so I find it quite isolating. I get support from the college, but there aren’t as many people doing the course here as there are in other places, so there isn’t really anyone to discuss it with.”

Chief Inspector Robert McFarlane, who is part of the team putting the course together, has been on secondment to Guyana, where he advised on policing methods to fight organised crime. “We have handed in our report. The next step is to make sure that some of it is implemented and that changes happen.”

The more highly skilled and educated police officers working abroad are, he says, the more they will be able to understand and contribute. “There is a lot of complexity in these situations.”

Rule of law

Clifford Sharp, at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, says there are up to 200 officers seconded to policing roles abroad, usually in small groups, with advising and training remits. This service, he says, is “part of the British government’s commitment to supporting the rule of law across the world”. Their main use is in end-of-conflict situations, supporting peace.

Politics lecturer Vassilis Fouskas, who teaches a course module called conflict and cooperation, says: “Educating police officers is going to make a difference on the ground as to how they can fit into these different situations. British soldiers tend to be more educated than their American counterparts, and it does make a difference.”

He says that there are factors common to all modern conflicts. “Since 9/11, and since the end of the cold war, a pattern is emerging. We have seen a series of conflicts with ethnic and religious roots. We look at concrete examples, like the breakdown of Yugoslavia, the fall of the Soviet Union, Germany’s recognition of Croatia as a separate state. There is an interplay of internal factors and external factors, such as globalisation and the emergence of America as the sole superpower.

“I can’t tell police officers how to deal with a woman who may have a bomb strapped to her,” says Fouskas, “but I can help them to understand the causes of current conflicts.”

The Guardian
Tuesday April 24, 2007