"Grassroots" policing: a selection of European models

By Alain G. Barbier

Are police forces an integration tool? I suggest looking at countries such as Belgium, Italy, Great-Britain, and the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia where different models apply. Such models derive from several influences, be it the State system for police services, the shift in public order from “law and order” to “negotiation and integration”, the overall evolution of police services’ actions previously geared to solely respond to crime situations, or the relationship between police (wo)men and citizens based on history, culture, trust and confidence.

In Belgium, over the last decade, public order and security measures have been inspired by the fundamental concept of community policing, or hinged upon a police work geared towards minority communities, since the Belgian population comprises of multiple nationalities and various ethnic groups. The “law and order” approach has evolved over the past decades towards a negotiated management of the public space. Until the mid-1990s, demonstrating crowds in public spaces were considered potentially irrational and dangerous groups. This concept was based on the psycho-sociological view that when individuals come together, personal behaviour and psycho-sociological barriers regress. In other words, a crowd was assessed as a less intelligent and mature entity than the sum of its individuals. In addition, according to the same old philosophy, one person would surrender his/her own identity, inhibitions, and sense of responsibility to the group. However, this vision of individuals in a group led to inadequate police strategies and tactics in terms of security. In practice, this approach excluded dialogue, partnership, the organiser’s responsibility and encouraged a dominant and repressive police approach (similar to a self-fulfilling prophecy) without proactive links to any community.

Acquiring a deeper understanding of communities entails a human resource policy striving towards diversity in police services.

Today, in Belgium, the current philosophy is based on proven knowledge that individuals form groups because of a specific context, expecting a double social recognition (as a person and as a group) but also takes into account the escalation of conflict that police services could provoke through inadequate security behaviour. The current trend therefore recognises the need for dialogue, individual discussions and exchanges of views, which are considered as opportunities instead of threats. Moreover, respect, a collective search for accepted alternatives and compromises are vital elements of such a methodology, which contributes to the de-escalation of violence and a better understanding of the motivations behind the behaviour of any group or community. The Belgian police landscape differs from all the other countries in the world due to the separation between public security police (administrative police) and judicial police. The public security police aims at maintaining public peace, security and health whereas the judicial police deals with crimes by investigating offence, collecting evidence and arresting criminals.

In Italy, where terrorist threats also trigger a high level of alert, leading to a major deployment of State police and the army, the demographic mix differs greatly from the Belgian reality. For instance, compared to Belgium or Great-Britain, “foreign” communities represent a smaller proportion of the Italian population. Police activities aimed at integration are therefore less prevalent and security measures are entrusted to police on the ground and intelligence services, which are specifically active towards communities at risk. The effectiveness of police measures depends largely on the understanding of communities. In Italy, community policing has not yet been fully implemented and will require further efforts before it becomes a reality. Policing is entrusted to the Polizia di Stato, the Carabinieri and the Guardia di Finanza, each with its own specific competencies. The close relationship between the Carabinieri and citizens, inherent to the community policing approach, is currently being adopted and extended at national level.

In Great-Britain, security police have a close relationship with their communities, be it for public order or judicial investigation. Through the whole security chain, from provention [1] to repression, and ensuing follow-up, the British police developed the concept of community policing decades ago in order to reach enhanced prevention, de-escalation, and community identity recognition. Each specific community designates its own representative, known as “independent advisor”, to directly communicate with the regional police chief. The advisor knows his/her community, speaks the language(s) and is fully aware of different co-existing cultures, which places him/her in the role of a perfect intermediary. For instance, in the 1980s, in order to address crimes committed by Jamaican clans in London, it was paramount to acknowledge the fact that the vast majority of the local community was composed of honest and respectful citizens. This programme included not only the police (community policing, investigation…) but also all government stakeholders (investing in ongoing activities), schools (entrusted with education and information), sport clubs (engaging youth groups), associations such as crime stoppers (allowing the public to address crime issues)… all looking at ways of integrating the (minority) community into the democratic life of the city. The integration of all aspects of policing within a programme also includes the follow-up of sentenced individuals. Contrary to Belgium, even after sentences have expired, ex-convicts in Great-Britain are still being followed up and counselled. Finally, in the UK, just like in Belgium, acquiring a deeper understanding of communities entails a human resource policy striving towards diversity in police services. Efforts should be kept up since the pay-offs of such a strategy are self-explanatory.

The geographical and historical background of the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM) brings a different view on the link between policing and communities. Indeed, whilst in the past police and community interactions were well developed, with the police playing an active role in the life of cities and villages, since then some changes have taken place in FYROM. These changes were triggered partly by the substantial change in the political leadership and partly by externally funded projects meant to adjust policing to the new European standards. These external elements led the police to slowly distance itself from the communities either because trust in the political leadership had vanished, or because the external models did not fit with the culture, mentality and traditions of each community. In FYROM, community policing activities were bolstered through the efforts of police officers coming from neighbouring countries or recruited for their origins (corresponding to existing local communities with the aim to better respond to their needs). Today, the political situation in FYROM has created a gap among communities which do not trust the politicians in power or the police, since it is perceived as part of the government. This paradigm shift of the police, seen as being increasingly influenced by leading politicians, creates an imbalance, in contrast with what Montjardet calls the three dimensions of policing (serving the population, serving the authorities and representing professionalism). [2]

As our society increasingly becomes a mix of cultures, origins, languages, but is also confronted with a common threat, there are opportunities to take innovative steps towards the concept of neighbourhood police officer.

In my opinion, police activities should be further integrated into society. A police officer should know his/her population either directly (like the Kobans in Japan) or through relays like the independent advisors in Great-Britain or embedded officers having the same ethnic origin as communities like in FYROM. In the 21st century, more than ever before, society is perceived as a dynamic entity enabling the democratic development of communities within society. Subsequently, the police become a facilitator, a guardian of citizens’ rights (the right to demonstrate, to express opinions,…), and at the same time promoting cooperation, dialogue, prevention and de-escalation of conflicts. Security, still perceived as a burden, should instead push authorities, stakeholders and communities (minorities) to find common ground to fill the gaps and prevent criminal behaviour. Gaps, if left unattended, can turn into threats instead of opportunities which must be grasped in order to ensure a democratic society involving all communities living in a country. As our society increasingly becomes a mix of cultures, origins, languages, but is also, as is the case now in Belgium, confronted with a common threat, there are opportunities to take innovative steps towards the concept of neighbourhood police officer. These officers, together with (minority) community advisors, could create a new paradigm for community policing which is much needed in Belgium. As a last note, Belgium could develop its own model without copying neighbouring countries because each country is unique, with its own cultures, communities, rules and way of living together. Thus one size doesn’t fit all: and this is true also for different cities in the same country if we want to create a sustainable, democratic and diverse society and give an active role to the police.

The opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the institutions he works for. Alain G. Barbier holds a master in criminology and a master in business administration while being a senior police officer from the Belgian federal police for over 20 years. Since 2009 he has held the post of deputy Special Representative of INTERPOL to the European Union.

[1] Burton, J.W. (1995), Conflict Provention as a Political System. In Beyond Confrontation: Learning Conflict Resolution in the Post-Cold War Era, edited by J.A. Vasquez, J.T. Johnson, S. Jaffe, L. Stamato. Ann Harbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

[2] Montjardet, D. (1996), Ce que fait la police, Sociologie de la force publique. Paris: La Découverte


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