Government and governance, Law | The Pacific

4 September 2020

The COVD-19 pandemic has stretched the already limited resources available to policing units throughout the Pacific, Danielle Watson writes.

While significant emphasis has been placed on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the health and tourism sectors of many Pacific Island countries (PICs), less has been said about the effects on security services and other frontline workers in the region.

Many police organisations across the region have a wealth of experience managing limited resources, unique stakeholder demands, multi-island jurisdictions, natural disasters, complex international relations, and the constantly expanding scope of policing. As such, it is perhaps unsurprising that adapting their operations to a global pandemic can go unnoticed or simply be summed up as ‘business as usual’. However, the reality for many organisations is that operations are being significantly strained during the pandemic, despite their traditional resilience.

An emphasis on expeditious policy-making around pandemic policing operations has been prioritised by Australia, New Zealand and their Pacific neighbours. Though not the preferred medium for many PICs, virtual support from international partners has been ongoing to assist with the formulation of guidelines around appropriate pandemic-specific operations, such as interactions with persons in breach of COVID-19 restrictions, the cleaning of stations, and social distancing on-the-job.

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The complexity of this policy-making is matched by the difficulty of actioning these new policies. Pandemic-specific laws around breaches to social distancing, social gatherings and quarantine are not necessarily those Pacific law enforcement are comfortable applying, especially in a region where familial and community ties underscore all aspects of life.

Facilitating social distancing of detained individuals also assumes availability of physical space to do so. For some countries, this has meant the use of offshore facilities, which undoubtedly has several layers of costs attached; costs which are likely to place a further strain on organisational budgets.

Border closures have resulted in limited, or in some cases ceased, travel to the Pacific. For police organisations in countries largely reliant on external support from Australia and New Zealand, the impact has been significant. In a number of countries, advisors and liaison officers have had to be repatriated. While these position titles would suggest consultative or support responsibilities, in many contexts these individuals support local capacity shortfalls. Their departure has had significant impacts on maritime surveillance and investigations for smaller countries in the region. The pandemic has also had consequences for the further deployment of support staff to the Pacific, given the need to protect host countries from the importation of the virus and the overseas staff and their families.

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All overseas training opportunities for police officers have ceased. In some cases, scheduled in-country training unrelated to pandemic preparedness and responses has also been postponed. External support continues to be provided virtually where possible, but bandwidth and connectivity issues across the region present additional challenges for many countries.

The strain on organisational capacity extends beyond upskilling, as many officers from the region remain locked-out of their home countries. Patrol officers who were attending training at the Australian Maritime College have not been able to return home. Officers who were on vacation or attending to medical issues abroad before the lockdown continue to be stranded overseas. The human capacity shortfalls have impacted on the working hours of available officers and available operational budgets.

Some countries continue to be in a State of Emergency (SoE). A SoE significantly impacts on policing operations as there is the need to reallocate resources. During a SoE, operations are subject to specific regulations made under the SoE. For a pandemic, these would include prioritised and heightened security for general policing responses and assigned quarantined areas, discharging of transportation vessels, and further vulnerability assessment and response preparedness. For such operations, officers have to be pulled from other departments. Some countries have had to reprioritise by involving entire departments in COVID-19 operations. Entire investigations, cyber-crime and community policing departments have been refocused on the pandemic response. In this context, delays to day-to-day operations and investigations are inevitable.

Forthcoming vulnerabilities are also a major concern for police leaders across the region. An anticipated recession is expected to have major consequences for young persons and members of vulnerable groups. An increase in instances of domestic and family violence (DFV) in the wake of the pandemic is evident across the region. For many organisations, there is an anticipated increase in calls for services related to youth crime and DFV. An expected decrease in already limited employment opportunities raises concerns about the future impact on police operational capacity.

Though the current reality for police organisations across the region seems grim, there is promise in the resilience and adaptability many of these organisations have demonstrated throughout their histories. While support from international partners remains a valued resource for organisations across the region, there is an increased need for dialogue with local stakeholders around improved internal capacity development.

There is also value in looking internally to improve partnerships with local stakeholders involved in parallel security service provision. A vital lesson the pandemic continues to teach is the need to tap into internal strengths to be able to successfully navigate the challenging times ahead.

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