An accountable police service which operates in the interests of the population is a fundamental foundation for any state. It is a prerequisite for social justice, democracy, peace, and the effective maintenance of security for all citizens.
For Lebanon, the need couldn’t be more acute. The country’s Internal Security Forces (ISF) is responsible for policing a nation which is at the apex of the Middle East, and deeply connected to regional conflict. The United Nations estimates that there are more than 1 million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, for example – about a quarter of its total population. Five years into the biggest humanitarian disaster of the twenty first century, pressure is a long way from easing on a country which is roughly half the size of Wales. For many of these refugees, they enter a nation which is still reeling from the impacts of another humanitarian crisis – about 450,000 Palestinian refugees remain stranded in 12 Lebanese camps, 68 years after fleeing their homes.
It’s easy to see why tensions might erupt. The refugee crisis puts obvious strain on a country which already has finely balanced political and governance systems, carefully structured to give representation to its myriad of communal and religious groups. Positions of power in Lebanon are allocated between the country’s Christian, Shia and Sunni populations – an attempt to deliver administrative harmony and avoid a return to the bloody battles that remain etched on the consciousness of a country which remembers its 15 year long civil war only too well.
In this context the value of fair and effective policing is high. But a 2014 opinion survey highlighted that public trust in the ISF is extremely low. Just 18% of the population fully trust the institution, and 34% hold no trust in it at all. Throughout Beirut the ISF’s grim reputation is symbolised in Hbeish. The old name for a police station in the city’s Western quarter – Hbeish is a word synonymous with the corruption and human rights abuses which have marred its past, provoking a mixture of fear and indignation among the local population upon its utterance.
But there are signs that things are starting to change. Siren Associates is a charity which works throughout the Middle East, specialising in civil policing transformation and broader security sector reform. In partnership with Siren, the ISF has spent the past two years establishing a Policing Pilot Project at the station, now renamed Ras Beirut. The project has overseen its complete refurbishment, recruitment of a new workforce, implementation of a new team structure and operational procedures, as well as extensive training and continuous mentoring. Importantly, the project seeks to put community policing into practice in Lebanon, helping to develop a scalable model which is based first and foremost on the needs of citizens. This includes establishing a dedicated local crime analysis unit – the only Lebanese police station to do so.
There’s evidence that the project is working. Crime fell by 30% between the first and second half of 2014, and public trust is beginning to rise – linked to the visibility of police on newly established foot and bicycle patrols. Roll out to other police stations is now being planned and there’s hope that replicating its success more widely could be a mechanism for change within the ISF and Lebanon more generally. As new tensions rise, community policing is an important part of attempts to hold the country’s increasingly fragile fabric together.