5 Ways Harm Reduction Can Help Modernise PolicingPublished on Monday, 01 June 2015 16:42
Police are under constant scrutiny (some more than others) about their policing and law enforcement practices and priorities. Criticism sometimes centres on their lack of capacity to keep up with rapid changes in society. Communities, governments, and police officers themselves have called for reform and professionalisation through increased accountability, legitimacy and evidence-based policing in order to meet contemporary community needs. Harm reduction approaches (see definition here) can help police bridge some of these gaps.
Read on to find out how:
1. Professional policing: There are many definitions and interpretations of professional policing: here we see professionalism as involving fairness and diligence in responding to community concerns and reported crimes. Any person who reports a crime should have their allegations investigated by the police in a principled and timely manner – regardless of who they are and of their personal circumstances. Police often have negative perceptions about marginalised communities, which can result in police indifference to their victimisation. Police engagement with harm reduction programs helps change this. For example, when police investigate a report of sexual assault by a sex worker diligently and fully, despite the (most often) illegal nature of sex work and preconceptions of the victim.
2. Expands community policing: The concept of community policing has been widely accepted as a contemporary approach to problem solving local issues. It involves the participation of community in deciding how police services are delivered. Here, community policing not only refers to the participation of residents, but also representatives from local government agencies, businesses, non-government organisations, civil society and other service providers. Collaborations between these stakeholders encourage information exchange and can lead to determining shared objectives and local priorities. Better co-operation between police and key populations (people who use drugs, sex workers, men who have sex with men and others) contributes to a better work environment for police by encouraging more durable relationships, thus reducing adversarial interactions (conflict) and improving police officer safety.
3. Crime reduction through public health: Modern policing approaches acknowledge that crime reduction cannot be achieved by police on their own. In fact, solutions to crime prevention are often found outside of the criminal justice system. Take the public health sector, for example: harm reduction approaches such as opioid substitution therapy have been found to reduce the incidence of theft, robbery and burglary among users in numerous studies around the world. The police have a leadership role in supporting public health experts to provide these services which not only reduce crime, but also reduce drug overdoses and blood-borne viruses such as HIV.
4. Helps police make difficult decisions: Many police claim they have no choice but to enforce the law, but every day in every country around the world police use discretion to determine courses of action for a range of crime and order maintenance situations. If police decide to use discretion and not enforce the law in specific circumstances, their decision-making must be justified to their superiors and the community. For example, in deciding not to arrest a person using illicit drugs, police can refer to harm reduction research which provides a sound evidence-base to justify the ethical use of discretion for the purpose of reducing harm associated with drug use. The more police are aware of the evidence supporting harm reduction policing approaches, the more likely they are to have increased confidence in using discretion and justifying it when held to account.
5. Sharing international experiences: The Law Enforcement and HIV Network (LEAHN) provides a peer-to-peer approach for police to share their experiences regarding the effective implementation of harm reduction programs. By networking with police globally, police officers and their organisations as a whole can find new ways to solve local problems using international best practice whilst adapting solutions for each local context. LEAHN has a network of 17 senior police officers (called Country Focal Points) worldwide who support harm reduction and can help facilitate partnerships between local police and harm reduction providers and key populations.
Written by Melissa Jardine, former police officer, Editor of the LEAHN eNews and consultant to the Centre for Law Enforcement and Public Health. Follow us at @majardine and @LEAHNetwork.