Government and governance, Law, Health | The Pacific

19 August 2020

Nick Thomson looks at how to unlock the public health partnership potential for Pacific policing services.

In response to the threat of COVID-19 across the Pacific Islands, we have seen Pacific Police Services (PPS) mobilized in different ways with varying degrees of authority and success.

The most common use of PPS has been in the enforcement of States of Emergency (SoE). In Papua New Guinea (PNG), the Police Commissioner was made the Emergency Controller overseeing the implementation of the SoE, but efforts in the country need to be more strongly complemented by public education.

In Fiji, the Police and the Military took charge of the enforcement of curfews, lockdowns and social gathering restrictions, including establishing roadblocks and police checkpoints to prevent travel between towns and cities. Quick action to monitor and quarantine new cases has kept COVID-19 in Fiji contained.

A pre-emptive SoE in the Solomon Islands — which currently is COVID-free — was implemented through a signed whole of government order where police were responsible for overseeing quarantine, maintaining public order and ensuring compliance. The implementation of some actions, though, were considered heavy-handed, such as the shutting of informal and community food markets and restricting the movement of people.

In Samoa and Tonga, the police enforced lockdowns. Police were also responsible for much of the communication around the SoE in PNG, Solomon Islands and Samoa.

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In Vanuatu, the coordination and communication role of police was assumed by the National Disaster Management Office in response to the dual hit of COVID-19 and Tropical Cyclone Harold. In COVID-free Kiribati, the police were in a support role, and not mentioned in official communications with the Ministry of Health taking the lead. Primarily this supporting role involved working closely with community groups.

While a more visible police presence in the enforcement of an SoE order is not unusual, COVID-19 has highlighted the roles and responsibilities that police have as partners in pandemic preparedness and response, as well as public health efforts more generally.

From tackling gender-based violence to supporting road safety, there are myriad examples where police engage with public health in the Pacific. Yet health security is a role that is not necessarily widely recognised, trained for, or resourced in the Pacific nor more generally throughout policing services globally.

In the context of COVID-19, health security policing has faced a number of challenges. In Samoa, Police Commissioner Fuiavaili’ili Egon Keil noted that they didn’t have the workforce capacity to monitor and enforce the SoE and called on the community to comply with the restrictions. In Fiji, the police asked the community to contact them if they saw people breaking the curfew as officers were stretched covering their expanded duties.

These examples require a high level of trust between police and community which is not easily developed or maintained in normal times in the Pacific, let alone in the middle of a high-pressure crisis such as COVID-19. So, the question beckons, how do we unlock the potential of PPS as true partners to public health in the Pacific? And by doing so, enhance community trust, safety and health.

A wide variety of competence and effectiveness levels exist within PPS and most pacific states have relatively high police to population ratios, with some notable exceptions such as PNG. Most PPS are under-resourced, under-budgeted and face capacity challenges. The barriers to effective policing include quality training, strong leadership, access to basic equipment, and a professional police culture. Regional collaboration and support can help address some of these gaps.

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The Pacific Islands Chiefs of Police (PICP) is a collective of Chiefs and Commissioners that provide opportunities for individual countries to come together to align policing priorities with external donors and partners. Over the last decade, most PPS have joined with external partners to enhance their capacity, professionalism and to improve community perceptions of police. There have also been initiatives to share policing expertise and information in the region.

In the context of enhancing pandemic preparedness and response capacities of police in the Indo-Pacific more generally, the AFP has begun including health security as a core component of their Regional Executive Leadership Program held for senior and emerging police leaders from the Indo-Pacific region.

But this alone is unlikely to build the capacity needed for police to support pandemic preparedness and respond across the breadth of PPS from their top commanders down to their new recruits. In terms of developing local strategies, police forces leverage local customs to ensure communication and enforcement is done in ways that are culturally appropriate and effective. For instance, utilising the chiefly and village systems, which may already have cultural protocols in place to manage crises, and can assist police and health experts in their jobs. Some countries already have community policing in place which could also be incorporated into a health crisis response.

COVID-19 and the lessons that have been learnt by PPS through their engagement in its response provides a unique opportunity to systematically explore and develop the role of police as partners in public health across the Pacific. Together with their external partners, the PICP – through their Pacific Police Training Advisory Group – could commission a training needs analysis that unpacks the scope of opportunities for police to support public health and by association improve public safety. This would also require the development of police-relevant metrics to quantify the value to both policing and public health.

While the various Ministries of Health around the Pacific remain central to developing and implementing public health interventions, supporting the role of police as potential partners in public health would give a much needed boost to public health endeavours. It would also provide a tangible example of how the Pacific Island Forum’s ‘expanded security agenda’ could practically encourage collaboration across human and traditional security issues, and put the words of the Boe Declaration on Regional Security into action for the benefit of all.

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