In addition to the challenges of lack of training, policies, facilities and public trust, Afghanistan was a testing ground for multiple interventions to reform the police all happening at the same time. These included initiatives related to counterinsurgency policing, counter-narcotics policing, intelligence-led policing, arming local communities to act like police, and community or democratic policing. Each approach relied on a distinct analysis of the security problems and relied on different, if not competing, theories of how to improve policing. While many programmes assumed the problem with policing stemmed from a lack of weapons or training in how to use them, or a problem of discipline and corruption, or a lack of training in human rights, one police programme took a different approach based on the belief that public lack of trust in and community relationships with the police was the fundamental problem.
Recognizing the need to coordinate police reform and development with governance, justice reform, disarmament, and other government efforts, the Afghan Ministry of Interior asked the UN Development Programme to conduct research and write a strategy paper for police-community engagement in the Afghan context. Consultations with diverse stakeholders including parliamentarians, NGOs, media, academics, and police personnel, and community members, especially vulnerable groups such as women, ethnic minorities and economically deprived communities, provided. Unlike other police reform efforts, this programme was “people-oriented” and was almost completely Afghan-led, with Afghan civil society organizations playing a prominent role in designing the program.
The Afghan Civil Society Forum-organization (ACSFo) and other civil society groups helped to facilitate the research and design of the programme known as Police e Mardumi (in Dari language) or Da Toleni Police (in Pashto language). While similar to other community policing programmes in other countries, it was referred to as the “democratic policing” programme to distinguish it from the confusing use of the term “community policing” within the Afghan context to refer to a parallel programme also known as the Afghanistan Local Police (ALP) initiative, based on arming community fighters to protect their own region. The democratic policing programme had four main components: training of the community and police first separately and then together; developing neighbourhood watch committees made up of community members; facilitating community-police dialogue at the local, district and provincial levels; and problem-solving forums and mechanisms to invite public reporting on security concerns.
The programme began with three types of training. While other police training programmes focused more on the “hard security” skills of enemy identification, use of weapons and force, the democratic policing programme spent two weeks focusing primarily on the “soft skills” of Islamic-based human rights, communication skills, leadership skills and conflict resolution methods, psychosocial counselling, legal issues related to rights of vulnerable groups and police and state roles and responsibilities. Police received training in human rights and police procedures relating to detention. A separate training for the community provided skills in advocacy and encouragement to see police not as “big men” who could not be approached, but as public servants whose job requires them to listen to community members. A third set of training brought the police and community together to learn about the rule of law. Unlike other police training programmes that relied heavily on interpreters and lectures, this democratic policing programme used roleplays, pictures and group dialogue to foster practical learning and build relationships in the training. This was important given the high rates of illiteracy.
Relationship building and joint problem solving were central features of this democratic policing program. A neighbourhood watch committee formed in each community. It was made up of seven community members, including at least one or two women. In some communities, religious leaders also participated in the neighbourhood watch program. Religious leaders have historically played important roles in overseeing the security sector, so could lend the project a sense of legitimacy.
ACSFo and other civil society groups facilitated bimonthly meetings between police and communities, including the neighbourhood watch committees. At these meetings, the community identified security challenges and designed local strategies to solve them. For example, the community could report on their concerns for children’s safety walking to school and together with the police, they could develop a plan for protecting school children. In some cases, these community-police forums expanded beyond public safety concerns toward a broader human security agenda. In Samangan province, for example, the community identified water scarcity as a primary threat to their security. In some cases, police-community meetings at district level were very tense. The programme facilitators decided to focus on the provincial level instead. Community representatives brought their concerns about police bribery, corruption and laziness to the provincial chief of police. At the next month’s meeting, the chief of police came with answers to the community and commitments to address the problems. These meetings increased police accountability to the public. Police realized they could be fired for reports from the community based on their performance.
In addition, the democratic policing project created two mechanisms for public to report information and grievances to or about the police. Police stations set up “information desks” and created call-in hotlines and/or complaint and suggestion boxes to receive information and complaints from the public. The complaint and suggestion boxes were distributed in front of schools, parks, and mosques. Every fifteen days, representatives from the police, community, local government and a religious leader would open these boxes and decide how to respond. For example, in one case a girl put in a complaint in front of her school naming the location of a man whom she had seen kill a woman. In another case, someone made a complaint against a specific government official who was corrupt and not doing his job. In the case of a group of girls that had run away from home to escape force child marriage, the community and police were able to negotiate with families and find ways of returning many girls to their homes and allowing them to continue their education. Most of the complaints were anonymous, making it difficult to investigate some accusations. But in some cases, the boxes provided needed information about how to protect the community.
In provinces with severe violence, such as Kunduz, the information desks and crisis response hotlines were the only feature of this programme in operation. There were no participatory dialogues where community members could discuss security threats and options for addressing them with the local police. It was assumed that the democratic policing concept to facilitate dialogue between police and community members would not work in these regions. However, Afghan media worked with civil society and the Ministry of the Interior to produce a large scale public awareness campaigns using mobile phones, social media, and TV and radio dramas to provide the public with a positive vision of the police as well as citizen rights and information on how to use the 119 crisis response hotline.
The Afghan Civil Society Forum-organization and other civil society groups also monitored and reported on the progress of the program, building in a system of civil society oversight and accountability of the police to the public. Both police and community members believed that the problem-solving, participatory process to identify security threats and develop human security strategies between the police and the community improved their relationship.
Excerpt from the book Local Ownership in Security: Case Studies of Peacebuilding Approaches edited by Lisa Schirch with Deborah Mancini-Griffoli and published by The Alliance for Peacebuilding, The Global Partnership for the Prevention of Armed Conflict, and the Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies at the University of Notre Dame.
Doel Mukerjee and Mushtaq Rahim. “Police e Mardumi: Indigenous District-Level Civilian Policing in Afghanistan” in Global Community Policing. Edited by Arvind Verma, Dilip K. Das, and Manoj Abraham. CRC Press Taylor and Francis Group, 2013. p. 58.
 See Afghan Civil Society Forum-organization. “Baseline Study for Pilot Democratic Policing Across 8 Districts of Northern Kabul Province.” Published in cooperation with the Afghan Ministry of Interior and the UN Development Program. March 2010.