Insufficient independence of the police in operational decision making, meritocratic career system and strong accountability mechanisms remain challenges to overcome, underlines Head of Police Programme in DCAF Paulo Costa.

By Saša Đorđević (BCSP) / Photo: Paulo Costa

Paulo Costa is the Head of Police Programme, SEE DIV, at the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces (DCAF), an international foundation which promotes good governance in the security sector. First time I met Paulo Costa was back in 2008 at the OSCE Mission to Serbia, when he was as Police Education Programme Manager. At that time, I just started to work at the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy (BCSP). I still remember the conversation with him about the importance of education and training in police reform. At that time, this was something new for me. In following years, we cooperated twice. In 2012, the DCAF and BCSP at the Police Academy in Belgrade presented Toolkit on Police Integrity, while in 2015 Paulo Costa helped the POINTPULSE network in developing a methodology for police integrity assessment.

I decided to conduct an interview with Paulo Costa when I saw that he is currently enrolled in Masters Studies in Business Administration. He is always looking for some new knowledge and I wanted to check his opinion about the importance of education and training in building police integrity. This conversation was like “blast from the past”, but with one very big difference. Right now, Paulo Costa has substantial experience, working in international organizations on security sector reform and more than 11 years working on police reform in the Western Balkans, in all countries in the region.

— Let’s start with basic questions. In your opinion, why must police officers uphold strong ethical standards in their performance?  

In fact, I believe that ethics and integrity are core values and principles that should be upheld by all citizens, in any profession, in any society. While in private sector jobs and business adhering to ethical behavior might exist in an “informal” way, in the case of police and other public services it’s not an option it’s a legal obligation.

In any country, the police are the most visible manifestation of state authority. The police are entrusted with special powers such as arrest, detention, coercion, and use of force (including lethal force). If not used with the highest levels of ethics and integrity, these powers might easily lead to human rights violations.

Therefore, it is crucial that ethical standards and integrity principles must be nurtured at the individual and organizational levels as to guide any strategic or operational decision taken in the line of duty. Ethics and integrity should act as the “moral compass” in decision making.

— And moreover, what are the three main conditions for creating a police service with integrity?

For me, there are three dimensions to be considered – the individual, the organizational and the external dimensions.

At the individual level, all police officials must act with integrity, meaning consistently behaving in accordance with ethical values.

At the organizational level – “the police institution” – Integrity exists when the latter operates under a clear frame of regulations and practices that enable police staff to act with integrity.

The external dimension refers to the environment within the police organization operates – the society in general and all other State institutions.

It’s often said that the police “is the mirror of the society”. I agree, if the society and the State do not promote norms and adhere to practices that foster integrity, it’s hard for the police organization and its officials to behave accordingly.

— Are there any specifics for the Western Balkans, having in mind the post-communist context and geographical position, especially the consequences of the Balkan route if they exist?

Referring to my previous answer, considering the “external dimension“, the short answer is yes.

In my view, each country and region are unique in the world. The socio-economic, political and cultural conditions are different. You know better your country and the region’s history, positive aspects and challenges.

My view is that the current geopolitical context, demographic events, deterioration of economy among other are issues, are affecting Western Balkans’ opportunities for further strengthening the police integrity in the region. But you know, independently of what will happen in the short-term, it’s important to recognize that the path towards police integrity is often hard and it’s not static.

I could give you the example of my own country – Portugal – that suffered serious challenges related to police integrity due to economic crisis during the last decade. It’s important to acknowledge that each country, region or continent is specific. From my experience and studies on the subject, I have become convinced that there is no such a thing as a “perfect country” in terms of police integrity.

What I believe is that integrity should be a guiding principle and we all have a role to play in building and sustaining it. We should all do our best to contribute to a better society with justice and equal opportunities for all, where we can all have our human rights respected. I consider that acting with integrity in any context can certainly make a difference for the better no matter who we are or what job we have.

— You have a lot of experience with police reform in Southeast Europe. Actually, you have worked for more than 11 years in police reform in all countries in the region. What are the challenges for the region in the process of creating accountable police services?

Indeed I have been privileged to have worked and learned so much about police reform in most of the countries in the region. This experience has greatly contributed to my individual and professional growth.

Although your question requires a more in-depth answer, I will try to outline just three specific challenges for the region that in my opinion has the biggest impact in police integrity building.

At the external level, the challenge is to actually create a “culture of accountability” – The fact that societies still consider that deviations from integrity, such as corruption, as a “way of life” or still tolerate violations of integrity, such as corruption, as a way of life makes it hard to build state institutions that are ethical and accountable.

Also, the lack of engagement in public dialogue, passive or poor participation of society in general, does not help in the process.

For the police organizations in the region, the main internal challenge remains what is often called “the politicization”. I prefer to call it “inadequate operational decision-making capacity of the police professionals”. In a democracy the government legitimately elected has the right to make strategic policy decisions that affect the work of the police, but the police professionals must have the autonomy to implement those decisions, professionally and with respect to rule of law. The challenge is therefore to find a proper balance between the levels of decision making at political and operational levels.

Still related to the previous point, at the organizational level, another big challenge remains to build and maintain a career system that is well-defined, transparent and inclusive, based on objective, meritocratic criteria. Only when police officials will be assured of their career progression – promotions and appointments – to be anchored in merit-based criteria can police institutions truly perform their roles and to serve its citizens with integrity and respecting the rule of law and human rights.

— Can it be said that there are same problems, for example, in Serbia and Albania, or each country has its own problems?

As I said, although there are similar situations in the region and other countries in the world, each country and conditions are unique. Some problems are common but the solutions must be sought at the local level within a broad and constructive dialogue of State and non-state actors.

— Although more than half the citizens of the Western Balkans have confidence in the police, this institution is simultaneously also considered deeply corrupt, about 70 percent share this opinion. What do you think about this perception and what is the current situation in Switzerland or Portugal, your home country?

Another very interesting question that would require much to say and maybe another person with more in-depth knowledge in interpreting perceptions and public opinions to answer.

Nonetheless, to provide you with my concise opinion let me first quote Aldous Huxley that said: “There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception”. For police, public opinion surveys are a useful and necessary instrument in analysis but as you well know from your experience in POINTPULSE, they should be carefully considered and the results properly analyzed. There are many factors that contribute to a certain perception at a given time and location.

It would not be constructive to compare Portugal or Switzerland to the region because of the different context – socio, cultural, economic and political. What I can say is that independently of the country, it should be a source of concern for any state institution, if its citizens perceive them as corrupt, even if it’s 10%. Being the perception of 70% it should be considered an urgent issue to be addressed and prioritized in the context of integrity building.

Paulo Costa at the international forum on police education in Belgrade, Serbia, on 29 September 2008. Photo: OSCE/Milan Obradović.

— You have a substantive experience in police education. Do you consider a good education program and its implementation a necessary element for preventing misconduct and building integrity? If yes, why?

I am deeply convinced that proper education is essential for solving most of the human problems. But let me clarify what I mean with proper education. Let me start by differentiating “education” from “formal studies” or “schooling”. Mark Twain allegedly said: “I have never let my schooling interfere with my education”. It is important to understand this fundamental difference especially in the context of police integrity. Research already indicates that if it’s not properly conducted and combined with other measures, schooling or training has limited impact in police acting with integrity. What makes a real difference is if the formal studies are solidly based on values and principles such as ethics and integrity, but the person themselves must already possess personality traits and that ultimately they will act with integrity. So, to answer your questions, yes, good study programs based on ethical values, leading to good education, can prevent misconduct and build individual integrity but are not the only factor.

The fact of the matter is that research shows that integrity traits are more related to behaviors and attitudes than to knowledge and skills usually linked with cognitive and other abilities.

The best practices in police recruitment focus more on attracting, selecting and recruiting persons with integrity rather than attempting to train them. There is a simple way to put it – recruit for attitude and train for skills.

— The research from the USA found significant relationships between education and misconduct. Police deputies who did not have a two-year or four-year degree were found to log significantly more complaints than their college-educated counterparts. Why is that so?

I have to reinforce here what I said before about education and formal studies. Indeed it’s proven that good study programs coupled with proper recruitment and other good human resources management practices can properly reduce the number of complaints and integrity violations.

In the example you provide, I can only assume that study programs were good but I would have to analyze other conditions and variables to assert if it was the only factor affecting the result.

All new police officers in England and Wales will need a degree-level qualification. What do you think about that new requirement? Will it affect the integrity of police officers in the short and long term?

I am familiar with the UK system and I have to admit that it might be one of the best I have seen so far. But yet again let’s stress that it’s not just about the degree. In the UK, the society has other history and culture in dealing with police and education that might not be directly applicable to other countries or regions. The external and organizational dimensions of integrity in the UK are much more developed than in other places. Not to say that everything is perfect there and they don’t have to deal with challenges in police and integrity as well. Nonetheless, if we were to follow the UK example we would have to build in our countries similar cultural, political, social and economic systems and practices to improve police integrity.

— Should police services have educational minimums for police officers, especially for the internal control sector within the police?

I assume that by now you have already guessed my answer. Yes, of course, education and other qualifications (competencies) are needed for police officers to perform their job in a professional manner. The police job involves many complex tasks that require well-developed competencies. A general framework of police competencies includes specific knowledge, skills, and attitudes.

Apart from some cognitive abilities, the physical aspects required for the job must also be considered, but above all, in the context of integrity, the most important is to have a proper attitude – behaving consistently with integrity. When a person is recruited to join the police, s/he already has competencies and personality traits that will affect the work. That is why that the police organizations must have solid recruitment process to guarantee that the best persons are selected. If the recruitment is not efficient there will be serious consequences later on for the organization.

As for working in internal control as it is for other specialized jobs in the police, of course, that there is a need for selecting the best. Already there exists a specific profile for doing this job, but yet again, much more than academic or cognitive capacities what counts is to have the highest level of integrity.

 — What are your suggestions for police officers’ training in the Western Balkans in order to reduce the level of police corruption and improve professionalism within police?

My suggestion is to look at training as an important component but not as the solution/ a panacea. The process of reducing corruption, improving the professionalism, building and sustaining high levels of integrity must be viewed in a holistic way. A wider debate and support from external stakeholders such as civil society at large, state and non-state institutions is required.

What is important is to build a democratic accountability system (external oversight). Internally, at the organizational level, human resources management processes must be strengthened. The recruitment, induction, appointments and promotions systems should be consistent with the principles of integrity, transparency, and fairness.

The training curriculum has to include solid foundations of ethics, Human Rights, gender, and nondiscrimination. Also, the methodology for training is crucial. Adult learning principles and techniques must be embedded in all the trainings provided.

Lastly, the training must be continuous. It’s not enough to have an initial training when joining the police. Training must be provided during all stages of an officer’s career, especially for those more exposed to risks of integrity violations, supervisors, and managers. Leadership as a value must also be streamlined in all trainings in special for managers and supervisors.

The other key element at the organizational level is to build a solid accountability mechanism (Internal Control). This system should include repressive but also preventive measures. Mechanisms and practices that lead to reporting and effective investigations and punishment of police misconduct must be re-enforced. This includes clear policies and procedures but also strong managerial capacity. Peer reporting and whistle-blowing systems have a very positive impact in this area. Also, integrity testing and other early warning mechanisms can support in prevention and investigations.

Finally, as to complete the holistic approach, we can never neglect the individual dimension. Ultimately it will be up to the individual (police official) to act as a role model and to choose to consistently behave with ethical values, with integrity.

— This is a very interesting question. Police unions in the region consider salary increase as one of the main measures for police corruption reduction. What do you think,  can wage increases reduce the level of corruption within police service in the long term? And, what is more important: education or salary increase?

Certainly, salaries have a big impact on the prevention of corruption and other integrity violations but for sure it’s not the only factor. In fact, many scholars have researched this issue and the majority of studies indicate that financial compensation is just part of the solution. Job satisfaction, working conditions, appropriate training, good management and leadership practices, positive organizational culture have important roles to play. Ultimately, police officials must perceive that they are fairly treated both in terms of salary but also in other dimensions of work. This perception is affected by both internal and external factors. Internally the comparison is done with other colleagues and externally with other professions.

— At the end, what is the main role of civil society in building police integrity and what are the benefits and drawbacks of civil society networks in the Western Balkans? 

As you know in DCAF we pay special attention to the role of civil society in the context of good democratic governance. Our work aims at enhancing the role of civil society organizations (CSOs) in fostering an informed exchange between security sector actors and citizens with quality research and advocacy. Also in the context of police integrity, we have been consistently working with CSOs and networks like POINTPULSE because we believe that your role is essential.

CSOs are key actors in the functioning of the police oversight mechanism in the overall context of police accountability frame. CSO’s must oversee the work of police, identify potential problems and provide recommendations to State actors, on how to address them.

At this stage let me congratulate you and the POINTPULSE team for the excellent work you have done so far. You stand as a good example for the region and the world in assisting your respective countries in building a better police service and enhancing their integrity. You must continue your path and pursue your objectives. Of course that you will need a lot of support from other stakeholders, and at times your job is not easy but it is certainly worth it. As we did in the past DCAF stands ready to continuing support POINTPULSE in this important endeavor.

Meanwhile, as to help you and other stakeholders, DCAF has also developed a specific program to assist countries in the region and the world in building or enhancing systems and practices in this important field. In case the readers are interested they can click here website can be used for further information.

I want to thank you and POINTPULSE for the renewed cooperation and the invitation for this interview. I wish you all the best and every success in the future.

TAGS: Civil SocietyExternal OversightInterviewPolice ReformPoliticizationWestern Balkans