Building trust in a reformed security sector: A field experiment in Liberia

  • A firm appreciation of the rule of law lays the basis for peace and economic growth. This trust is demonstrated in the relationship police and government security forces have with the communities they are meant to serve.
  • This project evaluated the effectiveness of new “confidence patrols” carried out by the Liberia National Police (LNP) that aimed to develop the relationship between policing hubs and local communities.
  • The project found that confidence patrols have some effect on improving general appreciation of Liberian law and some crime rates in areas visited by the patrol, but they didn’t improve trust in the LNP themselves.
  • Based on these results, the LNP has continued to carry out the confidence patrols, and has a firmer understanding of how to further improve community-based policing.

The rule of law is a prerequisite for sustainable peace and economic growth in countries recovering from civil conflict. Rule of law helps ensure the security of property rights, builds confidence among businesses and investors, and provides mechanisms for resolving disputes without recourse to violence. Yet re-establishing rule of law requires that citizens trust the police and courts as effective, accessible, and impartial. In countries wracked by civil war, this is a daunting and sometimes insurmountable task. How can governments restore citizens’ trust in security and justice sector institutions after prolonged periods of state absence, predation, and dysfunction?

This is the exact question that faces the government in Liberia, still recovering from 14 years of civil war. In collaboration with the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the Liberian government recently launched a major expansion of the security and justice sectors through the establishment of five Regional Justice and Security Hubs throughout the country. Equipped with better-trained personnel, improved infrastructure and greater logistical resources, the Hubs constitute an unprecedented increase in the quantity and (potentially) quality of justice and security provision in rural Liberia, where access to the police and courts is especially limited and distrust is especially high. The Hubs are widely considered the cornerstone of the government’s efforts at state consolidation, and a prerequisite for UNMIL’s withdrawal.

In this project, researchers collaborated with the Ministry of Justice and the Liberia National Police (LNP) to conduct a rigorous impact evaluation of the LNP’s “Confidence Patrol” community policing programme. Designed to build trust in the police and raise awareness about institutional reforms in the justice and security sectors, the programme involved repeated visits from teams of 10-15 Police Support Unit (PSU) officers to 36 communities in Bong, Lofa, and Nimba counties over a period of 14 months.

The study found that the programme increased knowledge of the police and of Liberian law; increased security of property rights; reduced the incidence of some crimes, notably assault and domestic violence; and increased reporting of crimes to the LNP. The programme did not, however, improve trust in the LNP in general. In addition, the programme appears to have reduced satisfaction with the LNP’s handling of reported crimes, possibly because exposure to elite, newly-trained PSU officers raised expectations beyond the ordinary LNP’s capacity to meet them.

Overall, the findings provide encouraging evidence about the efficacy of the Confidence Patrols programme, while also emphasising the need for continued improvements to the capacity of the regular LNP. Based on these findings, researchers recommended that the Liberian government and its international partners continue the Confidence Patrols programme in the future.  However, given the limitations identified in the approach, researchers caution that the Hubs approach to security sector reform should not be viewed as a panacea for restoring citizens’ trust and solidifying the rule of law. The researchers have since written a policy brief that details the steps that can be taken by the LNP to further improve the effectiveness of the patrols.

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