Conakry — After a group of youths pillaged a restaurant in Guinea's capital, Conakry, in mid-August - raping three women, according to the owner - workers there decided not to pursue the case with local authorities for fear of reprisals.
"We told our staff, 'Let's just be glad we're alive and leave it alone'," said a restaurant manager who wanted to be identified only as Ibrahim. "With impunity as it is in Guinea, pursuing this with the police would just expose us to more danger. We've got no protection."
With sentiments like these pervasive throughout the country, convincing Guineans that the police are there to serve and protect them will require a massive conversion effort. That is one objective of a new community policing programme being established under wider security sector reform efforts, following a recommendation by a joint ECOWAS, UN and African Union commission.
The UN Development Programme, European Union (EU), and the US government are funding different aspects of the initiative.
Another objective is to boost the status of the police in a former military dictatorship where, for decades, the army eclipsed its civilian counterpart. Gendarmes largely took the place of police, observers said. Guinea's police are poorly paid, work in difficult conditions, and lack proper vehicles and communications equipment.
The police, along with soldiers and gendarmes, have a reputation for mistreating civilians. Human Rights Watch, which has investigated alleged abuses by Guinea's security forces, says they have long been implicated in extortion, theft, kidnapping, racketeering and use of lethal force with "near-complete impunity".
Throughout Guinea's history, the police were "like an enemy to the people", said Mohamed Koumadian Keïta, the mayor of Conakry's Matoto District. He was among the Guinean officials who travelled to Burkina Faso in July to learn about the community policing programme there.
All this must change, said Daniel Oularé, coordinator of the programme at Guinea's security and civil protection ministry. "'Community police' is not a new police force - it's a new way of operating. From now on, this will not be a police known for brutality. It will be a police force that serves the public, respecting rights and upholding values like integrity, professionalism and loyalty."
The situation is ripe for change. A local aid worker told IRIN about a 14-year-old girl who had recently gone to the police - with the encouragement of her family - after she was gang-raped. In the past couple of years, as people have learned about their rights, they have become more inclined to turn to their local authorities, the aid worker said.
Policemen and gendarmes are also working with aid groups to protect the rights of minors in trouble with the law.
But in general, Guineans have little faith in the police as protectors.
The owner of the looted Conakry restaurant said she planned to buy clubs and other weapons, and that she would add layers of brick and barbed wire to the wall around her building. She and other Guineans IRIN spoke to said they would sooner count on personal guards or neighbourhood self-defence groups for security than the police.
"They show up late, if they show up at all, and usually they're after money," one said.
Guineans IRIN spoke with said that, when it comes to security, they feel largely on their own. It is common to hear people say: "The state is absent."
In Conakry's Simbaya Marché neighbourhood, known as a haven for thieves, Mabinti Bangoura said state security officials "have abandoned us into the hands of criminals".
Guinea's police lack competent and trained personnel, whether for public security, legal matters or maintaining order, Philippe Van Damme, head of the EU delegation in Guinea, told government officials at the launch of a pilot training project meant to support police reform efforts. The EU-supported project will run for 18 months in Conakry's Ratoma and Matoto districts and in N'Zérékoré, in Guinea's Forest Region.
A survey of police personnel in Ratoma and Matoto was conducted to learn about their capacities and functions to help guide training, said Marc Dubois, coordinator of the EU pilot. It showed that seven percent were illiterate. "Some can't read or write but that doesn't mean they can't be effective in relating with their communities and helping improve security," he said.
Events in Guinea going back to citizen uprisings in 2007 have shown the police incapable of maintaining order, Matoto mayor Keïta told IRIN. "We've got to bring this [community policing] to Guinea because right now there is no security for the people," he said.
Community buy-in needed
Keïta said communication is essential, but there must also be trust. "The criminals do not live in the bush - they live right here among us. For now, people are afraid to point them out. There is no support system. We must bring the population and the police together so the people will work with them, inform them, so the population can participate in their security. This can never happen if people do not trust the police."
As part of the project, the NGO Coginta meets with residents to hear about their experiences with, and perceptions of, the police.
Keïta said that in rural areas, communities have traditional mechanisms to ward off theft and other crimes. "We have done community policing - just not calling it by that name," he told IRIN, saying Guineans can restore security by returning to these community methods.
Officials working on the project say the plan is to establish neighbourhood committees that can help stop problems at their source. Oularé said there would also be ways for citizens to report poor performance by police officers. "The police will now be accountable to the people," he said.
For community policing to work, said Conakry resident Chaïkou Baldé, the people must be convinced the police will provide protection. "For now, they are used to police taking their money or detaining people arbitrarily. The key to success here will be human resources."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]