Policing and its relationship with Human Rights

By Graham Dossett


Recent global images of police brutality provide good reason to cause us to pause and reflect.  Policing need not be unnecessarily violent.  In most cases, in reality, police officers are ordinary members of civil society who have some additional powers and responsibilities in order to allow them to achieve their purpose in circumstances of last resort.  There is absolutely no reason why police and security force personnel cannot treat everyone they deal with, in any circumstance, lawfully and with dignity and humanity.  To do otherwise can be seriously counterproductive.

Police and security forces, in one form or another, can be found in every state and they are an essential element of it.  They appear in many forms; some are entirely civilian in nature, some are military and some are a mixture.  Some states have more than one type of police and security force that have differing functions.  Whilst the specific elements of the details of their role will vary extensively their generally agreed core role is ‘To Serve and To Protect’.  That is, to protect not only the state itself, but every individual within it.

To achieve their purpose police and security forces are granted powers to facilitate this permitting them to act in ways not available to members of the public.  Essentially, they are authorised to use force to achieve their ends, in exceptional circumstances.  This authorisation is limited and usually means when all other lesser means have failed and the use of force and firearms must still be within set legal limits.  The sanctity of life is recognised and humanity is respected.  They are also authorised to arrest, detain and interview; again in carefully prescribed circumstances.

Police officers are expected to fulfil their overarching role by maintaining public order, receiving and investigating reports of crime, arresting suspects and putting alleged offenders before a court or tribunal to be judged.  They should not act extra judicially.

Most police and security forces have officers who seek to abide by the rules almost all of the time.  This is essential to earn and maintain the respect and assistance of the public.  However, it is clearly documented in international and domestic court judgements, and on social media posts, that some officers can err.  There are graphic, recent, examples from different countries – including first hand video footage of the incident, which have been subject to news broadcasts and public debate.

Breaching the limits for the application of force may sometimes be in error or an improper uncontrolled one-off reaction to a specific circumstance, sometimes it may be a more regular occurrence serving to demonstrate that an officer is badly trained or supervised, or that control within the police and security force in which they serve is such that force might at worst, be encouraged at best, allowed to occur unchallenged.

Unlawful, unethical, or forceful wrongful actions of a police and security officer are typically exhibited through:-

  • Using force where none is permitted
  • Using too much force when it is permitted
  • Arbitrary arrest and / or detention
  • Breaching detention conditions
  • Inappropriate interrogation
  • Using torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment

At the worst level it may involve an allegation of extra judicial killing.

Limitations on police actions are contained within international law and other supporting non-binding non treaty instruments and in domestic laws.  Whilst errant police officers are sometimes brought to justice there is ample evidence that this is not always the case.

Much can be undertaken to try and improve policing standards.  I have worked with the Human Rights Centre, other academic institutions, international organisations, non-governmental organisations and police and security forces in a variety of roles over the years.  Additional to my Human Rights knowledge and experience I can apply the specialist knowledge and experience accumulated by working for a United Kingdom police force, achieving a senior position, with experience of investigating and prosecuting allegedly errant officers.

The types of work and the target of it can be wide ranging to suit particular needs.  For example, it is possible to work with: –

  • Police and Security Forces (at a variety of levels),
  • Policy Makers,
  • Parliamentarians,
  • Monitoring Organisations,
  • Human Rights Groups
  • Non-Governmental Organisations

After gathering evidence and working within the parameters specified, through providing advice, a written report and verbal feedback, it may be possible to contribute towards one or more of the following areas: –

  • Torture prevention
  • Reducing or eliminating excessive or inappropriate use of force
  • Advising on operational standards and methodology
  • Advising on training content and delivery
  • Advising on the supporting administrative services
  • Advising on preparing contingency plans and standard operating procedures
  • Advising on management and supervision
  • Internal performance monitoring
  • Contributing positively to external monitoring
  • Proposing new or amended laws
  • Proposing new or amended policies

One way likely to achieve more success or better acceptance of training which is essentially directed at human rights issues (sometimes resented or misunderstood by police officers who see this as an inhibiting influence to their work)  is to ensure it is illustrated by practical examples of good practice that work well elsewhere.  Another way, perhaps the luxury model, is to include practical training alongside the purely classroom based theoretical work (for example, firearms practice to ensure officers can exercise restraint and also shoot accurately in the few cases when this is warranted by range practice and training exercises).  This, however, is often seen as controversial and it increases costs significantly but where it is undertaken it is usually well received and thought to improve the likelihood of the adoption of the required methodology.

Achieving real change in an established organisation can sometimes be a slow process particularly where existing attitudes and behaviour are challenged.  Careful preparation and planning can speed it up.

Two case studies of work undertaken illustrate some different approaches.

Case Study 1

This was a project delivered gradually over a two year period by the Human Rights Centre, an international NGO and a university in the host state to government officials and senior police officers.

The project was aimed at achieving police and criminal procedure reform, particularly in respect of torture and other abuses – their elimination or at least reduction, and specifically for safeguarding the rights of detainees with a view to introducing the safeguards provided by independent visitors and oversight.

The formal project, which the state concerned agreed, authorised and took a close interest in included: –

  • A formal launch seminar that involved politicians, policy makers, academics and high ranking police officials, together with those who were to deliver the project,
  • A workshop for ministry and police officials, with project delivery staff in order to identify and agree the details of content, methodology and delivery of the project,
  • Roundtable discussions to oversee and discuss progress,
  • Training courses, specially developed, for middle ranking police officers, specifically covering torture prevention, arrest, detention, and detainee handling, based on domestic and international law norms, using jurisprudence and case studies to illustrate application and parameters, the aim being for these trainees to be competent to directly cascade the same material down to other police officers on their own,
  • The design and establishment of a trial custody visiting scheme,
  • A final seminar gathering those who had been present at the outset in order to ensure that all parties involved were fully aware of what the project staff had delivered.

A profile of the desirable traits and qualities of those officers to be selected as trainees was developed well in advance in order to ensure the most suitable were nominated.

The means of accessing international treaties, non-treaty instruments, jurisprudence and a wide variety of support material was provided.

At the end of the project a manual was produced that covered all aspects of the materials used and presented throughout the project and this was translated into the host state’s language.

As is so often the case, the project terminated after the agreed processes had been delivered and, frustratingly, there was no additional funding to provide for long term independent monitoring and evaluation by the project team.

Case Study 2

This project took place in a state in which there had been a succession of adverse judgments relating to torture and other heavy handed police behaviour that did not appear to be diminishing despite this.  The aim of the project was to identify the nature of the wrongful behaviour, to investigate why it was taking place and was not being prevented and to provide advice and guidance to help the police identify steps to change police behaviour.

The project took place within a six month period, those involved in the project working cooperatively with specifically nominated senior staff of the state’s police academy.  It started with a close scrutiny of the jurisprudence representing the most recent adverse findings and some clear similarities were identified.  Domestic law and authorised police procedures were examined and a baseline study and action plan produced for approval by the funding body.

The final outcome, incorporated into a detailed report and a presentation to senior officials, included a large number of recommendations for specific actions that could be taken with a view to preventing or curtailing some inappropriate police officer activity and to encouraging change and better behaviour.

Recommendations made included changes and improving aspects of Management & Supervision, Training, Accountability and the Availability of Information.

Some of the recommendations would require a legislative change; others would not, some would not incur much expense.  All recommendations were about addressing the attitude and approach of police officers so that any force used would, in future, always be lawful, necessary and proportionate – within a human rights compliant ethos.

Examples of some of the detailed recommendations made included such matters as; introducing individual and corporate accountability, ensuring command responsibility is unambiguous, introducing peer monitoring, improving record keeping and making more checks, improved internal monitoring of complaints made about police officers and making the data available publicly that training is reviewed for consistency and human rights compliance, and that a use of force continuum be developed to inform both training and operations.  A number of recommendations were offered in relation to the development of a Code of Ethics.

Access to international treaties, non-treaty instruments, jurisprudence and to a wide range of other support and training material was facilitated.

In this particularly case the project came to an end at this point with the state being left to consider the recommendations and decide which and how to implement them.  It is, after all, the responsibility of the state to comply with international treaties and for their compliance with them to be challenged by independent oversight and scrutiny and challenges within the various monitoring systems and judicial procedures that are in place.

Outcomes assessment

Delivering training and providing advice is all well and good but it is right to ask questions about the elements necessary for it to be considered effective and, more importantly, how successful it actually is – in particular to what extent it actually impacts on police behaviour and practice.

Any training or advice provided should always be based on a thorough needs assessment to determine exact requirements so that it can be targeted both in terms of content and the most productive methodology for delivery.

To be really effective the identified needs should be understood, supported and accepted by the police service receiving it and, critically, by all levels of staff.  Policy makers, chief officers, senior operational officers, senior training staff and trainers and, most importantly middle ranking supervisory staff and junior operational staff must all be exposed to the same training content and rational at the same time.  Chief officers need to promote the changes sought, training staff have to deliver it, supervisory staff needs to encourage, correct and perhaps chastise junior staff, and the junior operational staff have to adopt the new techniques when fulfilling their role and engaging with members of the public.  The material should be disseminated to all levels simultaneously for success to be more likely; none must be omitted.  The entire organisation has to make the transition as one.  Understanding and ‘ownership’ increase the chance of behaviour change and success.

This somewhat idealistic situation can be difficult to achieve.  Interest may be expressed, but be superficial.  Some members may experience the training or receive the advice but be determined to undermine it or continue working unchanged.  Supervision may be weak or the new methodology may be resented or seen as difficult to achieve.  All these issues are significant challenges that thorough preparation can help to minimise.

In an ideal world a proper evaluation study should be conducted after the training event or provision of advice to determine what change has occurred and the extent to which it has been achieved.  Unfortunately most NGO and international organisation projects do not routinely include an evaluation stage in the plan when the project is constructed, agreed and funded – often well before the organisation or individual invited to deliver it becomes involved.  At this late stage it often proves impossible to add.

Difficult though it may be to measure ‘success’ (and policing is very difficult to measure being subject, as it is, to many conflicting variables often beyond its own control – not least societal behaviour) there are some general measures which, in the long term may reflect change.  One example that is of a university keeping track of the number of news articles published in the country which were critical of policing or documenting allegations of improper or violent police behaviour.  As imprecise as this means is, it does at least provide material to promote discussion.  Another example (related to Case Study 2, above) is where the oversight body is specifically expecting to see a reduction in cases involving allegations of violent police behaviour coming before the regional Human Rights Court.

Policing is a public service and whilst it requires powers to use force and firearms and to detain so that, in exceptional circumstances, it may successfully fulfil its role, these powers must necessarily be limited.  Many police and security forces have high standards, are well managed and compliant, but not all are.  Civilian oversight and monitoring is an essential way in which forces can be observed, advised and ultimately held to account.  All sides need to know, understand and respect the limitations and advice in place and ensure they are adopted in all aspects of policing delivery.  Policing must always be provided in a manner that respects everyone’s human rights.

Disclaimer: The views expressed herein are the author(s) alone.


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