BEIRUT: Municipal police and officials across the country have welcomed caretaker Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s latest push to boost the capabilities of local law enforcement, but legal experts warned of legal loopholes that could put both the public and police at risk. Supporters of Charbel’s initiative argue that strengthening the role of police will empower communities to address their own security needs at a time of heightened threat. Critics fear that granting more power to local government will lead to tighter political and sectarian control over law enforcement and less accountability.
Charbel issued Thursday a sweeping 18-point list of “recommendations” to municipalities urging them to take a more active role in enforcing the peace.
The memorandum called for local police to receive arms training from the Internal Security Forces, which should also prepare to sell them handguns from its own stores in accordance with current firearms law. Municipal police are allowed to carry weapons but only with permission from the Interior Ministry, which Charbel signaled he would certainly grant.
Another controversial recommendation urged municipal officials to register Syrian refugees and “directly supervise” aid distribution.
Najib Moujaes is the police chief of Dhour Choueir in the Metn, which was singled out by Charbel for its close working relationship with the Internal Security Forces, leading to the arrest of a number of suspects in recent months.
Moujaes praised the minister’s initiative, noting that Charbel had been “very helpful” in facilitating police work since assuming the position.
“Whenever we put in a request, he makes sure it gets processed quickly,” said Moujaes, who oversees some 20 full-time policemen.
He complained, however, that the legal ambiguity surrounding municipal police makes them vulnerable.
“It [the law] needs to be clarified so that we know the limits of our authority and what we can and cannot do,” said Moujaes, adding that what is deemed acceptable seems to shift with the political climate. “Some days, we have certain powers, and the next day we don’t.”
Moujaes said he was unsure, for example, whether the police were allowed to set up checkpoints, or the legal framework governing the use of force.
“Of course this is an extraordinary situation,” he said, referring to rising tensions over security. “But we need to know what is the legal procedure that protects policemen.”
Much of the debate seems to boil down to whether municipal police are considered judicial or administrative police. According to lawyer Paul Morcos, judicial police are tasked with confronting crime and arresting suspects, while the latter is limited to a “preventative” role.
“The distinction is crucial in order to know which court is competent in case of damage caused by police,” Morcos wrote in an email to The Daily Star. Administrative police are referred to the state council, while judicial courts handle cases involving judicial police.
According to Article 74 paragraph 38 of the law of municipalities, the mayor is responsible for “ensuring security through the municipal police in its capacity as judicial police” but is required to “ask for the support of the Internal Security Forces” in the event of a crime.
“Sadly, [the law of municipalities] only refers to this police through other tasks or authorities when they should specify its powers in distinct and separate sanctions to clarify the extent of those powers,” Morcos wrote.
Tony Radi, the mayor of Kfar Shima, which also earned the minister’s praise for its cooperation, echoed Moujaes’ enthusiasm and his concerns.
“You can feel that the police have already changed” since Charbel’s initiative, Radi told The Daily Star.
“They feel that someone is supporting them ... We have rights now, we can mobilize.”
Kfar Shima employs 10 policemen, he said, and would hire more if the budget allowed.
Rady admitted that the legislation surrounding police powers was vague, and seemed unsure himself as to their exact classification.
“We are judicial police, we should be judicial police ... If the minister said so, he knows more than we do,” he offered.
The municipality of Beirut employs some 700 guards who are mainly stationed outside official buildings and enjoy less authority than police.
Mayor Bilal Hamad called Charbel’s initiative a “very good plan” and hoped that his guards, once properly trained, would be able to relieve the ISF from some of its more mundane duties such as directing traffic.
“They can put those personnel toward another job,” Hamad said.
But lawyer and activist Nizar Saghieh said Charbel’s plan would give the municipalities free reign to commit abuses such as the illegal curfews imposed on Syrians in some areas, which the ministry has done nothing to lift.
Moreover, he added, because municipalities tend to be dominated by a single sect, political party or powerful family, even those few checks and balances in place on a national level would cease to exist.
“What’s happening now is that there is no central authority, that’s why this power is being given to municipalities,” explained Saghieh. “It’s what they call ‘self security,’ and of course it will take on a sectarian tone.”
Outsourcing security to municipalities, he said, would create cover for local political interests to impose their own rule under the guise of the state, sanctioning the very same “private security” some officials claim to oppose.
Hezbollah has come under fire recently, particularly from the Future Movement for enforcing “private security” in the form of checkpoints in Beirut’s southern suburbs following two car bombs targeting the area.
“They are using the law to say ‘no we are acting within the official framework’ ... that’s why they are so sensitive and they refuse to compare these two phenomena,” Saghieh said. “It’s very scary what’s happening.”
“I’m not sure that what they are doing is legal at all,” he insisted.
“The central authorities are declaring their incapacity to deal with the changes and inviting others to do what they feel is appropriate.”
For their part, officials and police consider community ties – whether political, religious or familial – to be one of the advantages of local police over national security forces or the Army.
“They know the people, they know who is strange in town, they know who the cars belong to, they know when something is wrong and this helps secure the town and the citizens,” said police chief Moujaes. “If 90 percent of the people there support the party and the municipality represents the people, of course the municipality will have a party presence.”
Mayor Radi of Kfar Shima agreed.
“It’s like the minister [Charbel] said, everyone in Lebanon is politicized,” he said.
“Even if [a local official or policeman] is in a political party, there are laws, he would still respect them.”
The minister could not be reached for comment.