Taking terror out of the community
20 April 2011
How do you combine counter-terrorism policing with building trust in a community? That is the dilemma facing police in working with – rather than 'against' - a community to prevent potential terrorist activities.
A new report from the Religion and Society Programme, funded by the ESRC and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explores police-community partnerships to prevent extremism among Muslim youths. It highlights the importance of relationship-building between police officers and community members.
Counter-terrorism policing has traditionally been dominated by a top-down, 'hard' approach based on covert policing and surveillance. The community is seen as relatively closed and not integrating with wider British society, and Islamic ideology is portrayed as dangerous and in conflict with 'western values'.
A more recent, open policing model uses visible (overt) policing aiming to gain the trust and co-operation of the community. This strategy includes activities like encouraging political participation from within Muslim communities, enhancing education about Islam among Muslims, and supporting local mentors to rehabilitate individuals who are at risk of committing violent acts.
Both approaches are used in current security strategies, but the tension between counter-terrorism policing, trust and information-sharing with communities remains a major challenge.
The study built on interviews with 42 people affected by counter-terrorism activities in London and Birmingham communities, as well as interviews and discussion groups with 21 Muslim youths from diverse backgrounds.
Key research findings include:
- Accountability towards communities is increasingly a feature for policing. Accountability is not only about being accessible and visible to communities, it is also about police officers being open about the fact they are counter-terrorism officers
- Police officers are grappling with what information to release to communities regarding terrorism and counter-terrorism related issues, how to go about sharing this and to whom this should be made available
- Relationship-building between police officers and community members is vital. In a counter-terrorism context this presents particular challenges, requiring added sensitivity
- Information-sharing is seen as a key way of building trust
- In 'high-risk' areas it is likely that both overt and covert policing is taking place, which creates a challenge for community members engaging with overt police officers whilst also believing that they are the subject of covert operations
- Community members can play a crucial role in helping to risk-assess individuals
- Government discourse and related public debate may jeopardize the inclusion of key community experts, especially those identified by police officers as able to undertake 'hard-ended' intervention work
- The inclusion of grass-roots expertise through police partnerships has resulted in highly successful preventative interventions. The role of specialist youth workers is key in such preventative approaches
- Discussion and debate of theological concepts and practices are a key aspect of preventative work and intervention
- Risk-averse state institutions, or opposition to community approaches due to ideological standpoints within government, inhibit the effectiveness of preventative work.