Crisis and change in policing

by Alex Walsh · September 24th, 2020.

Police reform becomes more relevant than ever in moments of crisis and is often carried out in controversy. Northern Ireland’s police reform process in the 2000s followed civil conflict, and its transformational character met controversy, some of which persists. Today in the United States (US), amid a crisis of national values, new experiments in public safety are being demanded – sometimes pushed to the extreme of abolishing the police – within a cacophony of sharp polarization and bitter dispute.

The US example is fresh and instructive of a wider truth. If we want to understand policing and police reform globally, we ought to understand the police’s role during times of national crisis, and understand it as a site fundamental political contestation. As DCAF’s director, Ambassador Thomas Guerber, commented in an opinion piece published in July 2020:

“The recent demonstrations [in the US] and protests against police brutality mark a tipping point and it is not only policing that is at risk. In some contexts, important democratic values are also being challenged. Until we accept the need for systemic change, civil unrest and protests against the police will likely continue.”

In short, crisis and contestation over policing speaks to different expectations of what the state and its values should be. National crises can provoke necessary police reforms, but we miss a key opportunity if we do not perceive the need for reform through a wider systemic angle, where policing and democratic values are deeply entwined.

Crisis and continuity in policing in the Arab world?

Then there is the Arab World, which seems to be stuck. Conflict, human catastrophes and state collapse have been so much a feature of the Arab World in the last decade that they feel more normal than stability and predictability. ‘Crisis’ is an understatement. And yet, much in policing practices in the region seems to have stayed the same or even deteriorated since 2011, despite protests against the police forming the opening act in many countries’ decade of discontent.

What has happened to impede meaningful change? What might be done to overcome these impediments?

Two pieces of analysis tackle these questions on policing in the Arab World.

The first, is a pair of essays published by the Arab Reform Initiative. Part I: Surveying Police Concepts and Modes of Contestation, published in January 2020, surveys the dominant concepts of policing in the region, and looking at how citizens have contested policing. It argues that change was possible, but that there was a failure to bring change into the institutions. Part II: Challenges to Reform, published in September 2020, considers why this transition largely did not happen, isolating five primary obstacles, as well as spotlighting five opportunities for change.

The second is a European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS) on Relationship Therapy: Making Arab Police Reform Work. This work was led by the security, conflict and foresight expert, Dr Florence Gaub, who is Deputy Director of the EUISS. To be published in October 2020, it traces the history of police-people relationships in the Arab World until the present day. It then zeroes in on the degree to which the citizen, as individuals or groups, is empowered to influence policing today. Using this measure, it categorises the people-police relationship in Arab states into four groups: The Estranged Partners, the Abusive Marriage, the Renewal of Vows and the In Counselling. It concludes with a set of policy considerations for European policy makers. These considerations argue that space for positive change remains narrow but persists despite everything. They emphasize the necessity of finding contextually appropriate consultation mechanisms between citizens and the police.

Where’s the money?                   

These papers understand policing in much of the Arab world as an institution at the centre of national political crises. They argue in favour of guarded optimism and suggest a framework in which international partners can support change.

Both of these papers also touch on the economic costs of bad policing (insecurity and corruption) and encourage continued international investment in SSG/R in the Arab world. However, police institutions should also be understood within economic crises. Indeed, international experience also points to the great significance of economic spoiling and enabling factors for police reform and political reconciliation. In Northern Ireland, economic progress was as crucial to the peace process as political negotiations and popular movements (see Economics in Peace Making). Without it, acts of sabotage had the potential to spoil the process. This is one manifestation of the political economy aspect of police reform, which while often acknowledged, is little applied in research and international programming on police reform.

This lacuna is a problem for a number of reasons. While the topic of financial governance is often given attention (and rightly so), how policing is plugged into the wider economy (official and unofficial) is not. Also often overlooked is the fact that the police are constituted of economically active individuals who sometimes face conflicting economic imperatives. To take a topical example – today, a Lebanese police NCO has seen their salary lose three-quarters of its value. This NCO must somehow support themself and dependents on a much-diminished salary. This may oblige them to look at other income streams, with an array of problematic consequences.

Outreach and Knowledge plans

We in ISSAT’s Outreach and Knowledge team would argue that all these macro- and micro-economic aspects are vital to understand how a police force operates and how we as SSG/R professionals can make a difference. We are preparing a toolbox for political economy analysis for police reform and SSG/R, more widely. This will benefit from past lessons and expert insights and will come out in 2021. We would welcome contributions.


The year 2021 will be a significant year for policing. Fierce contestation over the nature of policing will continue in a range of American, European, Asian and African countries, new coalitions will form and opportunities for change will arise. The international community will continue to have opportunities to engage positively with reform opportunities, and will be best placed to do so with a deeper understanding of the political dynamics around police reform.

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