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This was originally published in the Opinion section of   (Image: © Bryan R. Smith / AFP)


All eyes have been on protests and calls for police reform in the United States and Europe in recent weeks, and public confidence in policing institutions is at an all-time low in many countries around the world. The police are the guardians of the criminal justice system. It is the physical manifestation of the social contract and, as such, the level of trust between the people and the police is a litmus test of the state of development of a democratic society.

The decline in public confidence in security institutions in general - police and military - is a worrying trend, and it appears that this crisis may well be the catalyst for needed reform. Countries that have made the transition from conflict to peace, to an effective rule of law and democratic control, have learned that an accountable security and justice system is the foundation upon which political, social and economic.

The current debate on the "de-financing" of the police should therefore not focus on whether society needs it, but rather whether the role of police - as an institution of last resort for all. the problems of society - is actually effective or sustainable. Over time, the traditional mandate of the police - to maintain public order and safety, enforce the law, and prevent, detect and investigate criminal activity - has been broadened to compensate for shortcomings in political and economic systems and civic engagement. And this is where the whole problem lies.


Police reform, like that of all areas of the security sector, is as much a political and social challenge as it is a technical and legal one. It is time for Western countries to put into practice at home what they have been preaching for decades to so-called developing countries. The same development and security assistance programs that support reforms in the South, in particular, could provide guidelines and best practices for reforming police in Western countries.

Forged through the test of experience and tested over long periods of time, the principles that guide such reforms are well known. They have been enshrined and reinforced in the policies and official declarations of nothing less than the United Nations, the European Union and the African Union.

First, police reform must be a political priority and commitment, owned and defined locally. Change must be based on strong political commitment, and police personnel themselves must recognize the need for change and own it. The public should be involved in identifying reform priorities, especially with regard to the structure, resources, mandate and accountability of the police.

We commonly find that in immature police environments, public debate about the police remains more limited, if not monopolized by the police themselves, with limited civilian input. The common excuse for limiting debate is that policing is a complex subject that is poorly understood by non-police experts; yet, to have the kind of law enforcement agencies we want in our societies these must fundamentally remain a public policy issue subject to in-depth consultation and concerted development with all stakeholders. sections of society.

In Ethiopia, where the lack of police accountability has been a source of contention in many communities, the government has conducted extensive consultations with local communities, academics, police experts, civil society and political parties. in all regions to develop a revised national police doctrine.


In other contexts, in Liberia or The Gambia, governments have conducted public perception surveys to understand the extent to which the police have or lacked the trust of communities and to identify parts of a community, ethnic groups or specific gender, who had a difficult relationship with the police or other security institutions. These consultations enabled policy makers to shape the reform process according to specific views and needs. Thus, perception studies, carried out at regular intervals, can be important tools in understanding whether the reforms have had the desired result.

Second, to reduce the risk of abuse, a balance must be struck between improving police efficiency and establishing appropriate accountability mechanisms. This is usually where police reform fails. The emphasis is too often on training and improving equipment, without the necessary institutional guarantees in place to ensure that this capacity is used appropriately.

Third, police reform is a systemic process rooted in the social contract between state and society. It has repercussions for all security and justice institutions. The maintenance of order does not happen in isolation; it must be understood in the social, economic and political context, and as part of the larger system of criminal justice and governance.


In view of recent protests, the evolving role of police institutions and the results of the long-standing work of DCAF - Geneva Center for Security Sector Governance - on police reform in many regions around the world, we can estimate that reformers in the United States and other Western countries will be faced with four key questions.

The first is demilitarization. The division of roles and responsibilities between security organs has certainly often been a problem in countries in transition to democracy, but we have also seen a trend towards militarization of the police in the so-called developed world over the past two years. decades. This is in part due to the ease with which surplus military equipment can be procured, the recruitment of police personnel from the military and the use of the military for internal security - but also a change in tactics, philosophy and approach to policing. What is clear is that this tendency has moved the police away from the idea of ​​service - consenting to policing - and reinforced their perception of coercive force.

Another issue is that of inclusion. To be effective, the police must have the confidence of the public. The first step is to ensure that the police are representative of the society they serve, which usually involves greater diversity of ethnicity and gender in the higher ranks. This must be combined with trust-building policies and an inclusive dialogue on the needs of the police, in particular with vulnerable social groups, suffering from sexual, cultural or socio-economic discrimination.


Another challenge is to have multiple levels of accountability. Experience has shown that this is necessary to guarantee the integrity of a police institution.

Sierra Leone and Northern Ireland both offer good examples of reforms aimed at creating multiple levels of accountability, in order to strengthen integrity within the police and to bridge the public trust gap. Through a comprehensive approach to police oversight and the development of integrity-promoting programs, codes of conduct, complaints mechanisms and disciplinary procedures, a clean break with the past has been possible. This rupture was reinforced by parliamentary control, the establishment of consultative bodies within local communities and other external mechanisms such as a mediation institution, police commissions and better transparency of information. . In the Western Balkans,

The last point concerns responsiveness to social change. Police institutions, like other security and justice structures, are the product of a country's history, its own political system and its culture. So, if the principles of reform transcend context, no two police systems are the same and change must reflect social and cultural norms. A change in the approach to policing requires not only political change, but also, in most cases, social change.


The recent demonstrations and protests against police brutality mark a turning point and it is not only the maintenance of order that is in danger. In some contexts, important democratic values ​​are called into question. Until we accept the need for systemic change, protests against the police are likely to continue. Further erosion of trust between the police and the people they are supposed to serve will weaken the social contract. Policymakers need to accept the fact that these are not a few bad students who behaved badly. It is about how police institutions operate and are held to account. The public deserves it, and democracy depends on it. 

Thomas Guerber was DCAF's Director from 2016 to 2022. From 2010 to 2013, he was the Deputy Permanent Representative of Switzerland to the United Nations in New York. In Switzerland, he held various positions in the Human Security Division of the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs, including that of Chief of the Peace Policy and Human Security Section. He has been Director of DCAF since 2016.