BEIRUT: Reducing police corruption was the topic of discussion at an off-the-record meeting in Beirut Thursday, part of a broad international effort to improve the country’s constantly tested and often distrusted police force. Organized by the British Embassy, the conference brought together Internal Security Forces officials, NGO leaders, and police experts from a number of nations who have recently worked to improve their police forces.
The aim of the meeting was to determine exactly how people can be involved in improving the service from the police, which a survey has shown enjoys low levels of trust from the public.
“The survey showed a comparatively low level of trust in the ISF. Respondents noted that the best way to increase trust was to improve police conduct and integrity,” said Piers Cazalet, the deputy head of mission at the British Embassy.
“In order for change to be meaningful and credible for the public, we need to encourage partnership between the police and the community,” Cazalet said.
The meeting comes during Interior Minister Marwan Charbel’s “security month” campaign to arrest people with outstanding warrants and illegal paperwork in an effort to restore trust with the public.
The meeting brought experts from Kenya, Georgia and South Africa who have used programs like online public response as well as police oversight and planning organizations to reduce corruption and improve overall policing.
The meeting’s event organizers hope to eventually move the discussion into the public arena to help channel people’s feelings about the ISF and let them be an external voice to change to the organization.
Ziyad Baroud, a former Interior Minister and the featured speaker at Thursday’s event, said reforming the police and public involvement represent important changes to be made, but he was not optimistic they would happen any time soon given the current political situation.
“Unfortunately [reform] is pretty much linked to the political unrest,” Baroud told The Daily Star. “I’m not saying that this is not feasible. I would put it this way: If you have a minimum [level of] political stability, you can have trusted results.”
The country has been wracked by months of unrest due to political bickering, partly related to the uprising in Syria, which continues to worsen and exacerbate tensions in its neighbor.
Baroud also says there needs to be a significant change in attitude on the part of politicians to let police do their work before changes will be meaningful.
“Most importantly, and this is very hard to do, you need to make politicians not interfere in the work of the police,” he said. “This is the most difficult task ... it’s a trend – [politicians] will call a police station and say this guy who you are investigating is not guilty. They act as judges.”
Currently the ISF is believed to be about 30,000 members strong, doubling in size since 2005, and costs around $500 million a year to run, according to police experts.
Government officials say the ISF provides a strong deterrent in a politicized society rife with criminal networks. But critics say the police often don’t do much police work and what is done is tainted by political bias, corruption and poor practices that include beating and random detention.
A 2009 survey initiated by the ISF showed that few people had complete trust in the police force, and the majority said improving police conduct was the main thing they would like to see improved. Another survey is set to be carried out this year.
Over the past five years, there has been a large foreign donor effort from the EU, the United States and United Kingdom to help reform the force.
Recent ISF reform projects include the creation of a unified code of conduct for police, the construction of a $10 million training facility, female police officer recruitment and anti-torture seminars.
Millions of dollars are going into the projects that are just beginning to bear fruit. Female police have now been seen patrolling the streets of Beirut, while the U.S. graduated over 100 officers through a new training program Thursday.
Many of the projects are still in their early stages, and it remains to be seen whether they have a sizable impact on policing in the country.
Others have yielded less certain gains. After an extensive training seminar on torture and police brutality several months ago, a number of police officers were unconvinced that they didn’t need to use force for confessions.
In the meantime, Baroud sees two avenues for change: creating more accountability in the ISF through new laws that restructure the force, and cultural change by creating public response outlets such as complaint centers.
“The trust of the citizens, or the lack of trust, is not limited to the ISF,” he said, noting that the general level of public trust of the government was very low.
“The policemen in the street or the police station is the first contact you have with the state,” Baroud said. “The crisis we have is a crisis of trust with the whole system.”