Non-state policing refers to the use of non-state (informal) actors, e.g. vigilante groups, private security firms, to carry out ‘law and order’ functions (preventing crime, investigating, detaining and punishing those responsible for crimes). Non-state policing is not a synonym for community policing (a much broader term, usually associated with formal police agencies) but there are overlaps between the two.
Non-state policing emerges in situations where formal police agencies are unable to fulfil their roles, either because: they lack resources and capacity; they are corrupt and/or carry out human rights abuses; there is conflict and instability; people find it difficult to access formal security and justice mechanisms.
Non-state policing providers are generally more accessible to citizens, have greater popular legitimacy, and are more responsive to local demands, as well as more accountable. There are also risks, though, notably of lack of representation (e.g. women, minorities) and of human rights abuses.
Examples of non-state policing are to be found in many developing countries, particularly Africa. These vary hugely in nature, functioning and impact – both positive (reducing crime) and negative (e.g. human rights abuses). State responses to non-state policing providers also vary from hostility to collaboration.
Northern Ireland and the former Soviet Union/Eastern European countries do have some nonstate actors involved in security functions, but they are better categorised as examples of formal
police reform (as in of formal police agencies) in response to vastly changed circumstances and the challenges faced in this. This review looks at more palpable examples of non-state policing:
- Mexico: Policia Communitaria – formed in Mexico’s Guerrero State by indigenous communities in response to police failure to combat rising crime and violence. The Policia Communitaria have been very effective in reducing crime and making people, especially women, feel safe and able to move around freely. The relationship with the state is contested: while acknowledging the force’s effectiveness, there are concerns among state authorities that the Policia Communitaria operates outside the realm of law. But efforts to bring it into the state system have been rebuffed.
- Nigeria: vigilante groups – numerous vigilante groups operate in Nigeria because of the ineffectiveness of the formal police. Some groups have joined to form larger networks. As well as security, some carry out social development and welfare functions. Though not recognised in national legislation, the state welcomes vigilante groups as long as they are not violent and abusive. Such groups have had a positive effect on reducing crime, but negative effects include human rights abuses, corruption and even enforcement of religious practices.
- Papua New Guinea (PNG): diverse non-state policing providers – low police numbers, lack of access by citizens, and rising crime were factors in the emergence of non-state policing providers in PNG. These include groups derived from traditional structures, those enjoying overt state support, those with tacit state support, and those operating in direct contravention of the state. There is limited evidence of their effectiveness, but some forms (notably mercenaries and raskols or gangs) have carried out abuses. The state’s approach to non-state actors has shifted from ad hoc to one of facilitating partnerships between these and state security providers: this is seen as a way of enhancing state legitimacy and promoting development.
- Peru: rondas campesinas – rising cattle theft and other crime in rural northern Peru, and state ineffectiveness in responding to this, led to the formation of ‘peasant patrols’ to protect villages and property. Their role has expanded to other security functions, dispute resolution and even socio-economic development projects. The rondas campesinas have been effective in reducing cattle theft and other crime, but many of their punishments violate human rights. The state’s response has varied over time: from overt hostility to recognition in law, to more recent confrontation because of the rondas groups’ objections to planned hydropower projects in their area.
- Tanzania: sungusungu committees – demobilisation of soldiers after the UgandaTanzania war led to rising cattle theft and other crime, which the state was unable to control. Sungusungu committees were formed by traditional village assemblies, in order to patrol villages, apprehend and punish criminals, and recover stolen cattle (property). The sungusungu committees are seen as effective in providing security and empowering communities, but there are concerns about human rights abuses. The state has recognised and endorsed sungusungu committees because they meet local needs, and reflect the ruling party’s socialist ideology, but they have not been legalised.
Donors have traditionally been reluctant to support non-state security and justice providers. This reluctance stems in large part from the state-centric approach characteristic of development assistance, as well as concerns about lack of representation and accountability of such groups, and human rights abuses committed by them. There are also risks that supporting such non-state actors could set up parallel structures (undermining state systems), could damage relations with host governments, and could cause harm in host states. In addition, practical challenges in programme management are much greater: requiring more resources, capacity and skills on the part of donors/implementing partners.
There are strong arguments for donors to engage with non-state security and justice providers in their programming: The on-ground reality in many developing countries is that it is non-state actors who provide security; such actors are more accessible, responsive, legitimate and accountable to citizens; and conventional security and justice programming (supporting state agencies) has not shown great results.
Approaches for donors to overcome the risks and challenges involved in security and justice programmes with non-state actors include: developing knowledge-management
strategies to acquire detailed local knowledge, and identify and mitigate risks; ensuring improvements in service delivery and state-building go hand in hand, instead of working against one another; stressing to host governments the benefits of supporting non-state policing, and pooling donor funds to meet high demands on staff time and capacity. Overall, donors need to show greater political acumen, flexibility and tolerance of higher levels of ambiguity and uncertainty in their programming.
While community policing (as in involving formal police agencies) has been widely studied, this review found far less literature on non-state policing. The bulk was academic papers. The literature clearly points to a lack of representation of women in non-state policing providers; there is also some reference to the effects of these on women – in some cases enabling them to move freely (feel secure), in others subjecting them to human rights violations. No mention was found in the literature of persons with disabilities.