On September 1, 2014 the Maldives Police Service (MPS) marked a decade of existence as a civil institution that is separate from the military.
From its very inception, the MPS have been promoting contemporary policing philosophies and concepts to describe the kind of policing it would practice. Terms such as community policing, evidence based investigation, forensics and DNA are used to describe its policing strategy and promote the MPS as a modern, professional and service oriented organization.
To achieve its goals the MPS receives significant foreign aid and assistance from a number of countries. Its officers are trained from highly prestigious police academies, training institutions and universities. Also, the Maldives government invests heavily in MPS. It is estimated that there are more than 3000 police officers within the MPS to police the population of Maldives which is under 400,000.
But for all the strategic intentions and resources, neatly bound strategic plans and the trainings from across the world, the MPS is failing at its core missions—preventing crime, improving safety and gaining legitimacy.
Over the past 10 years crime in the Maldives has increased substantially. Official statistics show that reported incidents have more than doubled during the last 10 years from 9,140 crimes in 2004 to 18,984 crimes in 2013.
Violent crimes, financial fraud, drug offences, sexual offences and terrorism, to name some, have increased substantially. Of course, the increase in crime cannot be directly attributed to MPS— there are complex social, economic, political and legal factors at play here.The increase in crime may also reflect administrative changes in defining, collecting and counting crimes. Because no research has been undertaken to capture the ‘dark figure of crime’ which go unreported or unrecorded, such as a general victimisation survey, it is fair to claim that the actual crime rate of the Maldives is likely to be much higher than what is officially recorded and published by the MPS.
Irrespective of what the numbers reveal, there can be little disagreement that crime in the Maldives and its impact to the people of the Maldives has taken an incredibly negative trend in the past ten years.
With the increase in crime, people’s sense of safety has also decreased throughout the Maldives. Fear of crime and the likelihood of becoming a victim of crime in the Maldives are huge. While the MPS are partial culprits to the ever increasing crime problem, they have an important role to play in reducing the fear of crime. To reduce the fear of crime the police need to be proactive, however.
And therein is the MPS’s biggest failure—it continues to operate like a fire brigade reactionary force that reacts to crime rather than proactively prevent crime.
Prevention is a key task of contemporary policing and there are many things the MPS could do to prevent crime. It seems the MPS speaks of crime prevention very much but little is actually done towards this end.
The MPS engages in piecemeal advertisements through the police website and social media, however, and conducts some information sessions to public and school children under the rhetoric of crime prevention. For instance, the MPS has been conducting information to young school children and parents with slogans such as ‘together we can reduce crime’, but fails to properly assess and engage the at-risk youth or parents who usually don’t attend these ‘feel good’ public campaigns.
Moreover, there are no clear targets or evidence based content to these information sessions. In other words, the MPS primarily conducts situational crime prevention activities which promote target hardening, even that without a clear strategy or outcome analysis.
There are many other ways such as Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), co-production of safety and security through community policing and social and restorative justice approaches that could be further used by the MPS to enhance its crime prevention activities.
The Crime Prevention Committees that have been formed in the islands, the community policing version of MPS, lack regulatory procedures to operate and thus depend on individual stations to make it work. Recently it started activities that are highly militaristic in terminology and in ritual called ‘Blues for Youth’ and ‘Be Ready Camps’ that has no clear objectives, goals and measurable outcomes.
There are many factors that indicate crime prevention is not a highly valued function within the MPS. The Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, in their evaluation of the implementation of MPS strategic plan 2007-2011 found that 84% of police officers they surveyed highlighted police officers do not receive sufficient training or resources for crime prevention. The survey further found that there was a perception within communities they surveyed that the police were failing hugely on prevention of crime.
The frequent restructuring and repositioning of crime prevention function from department to department is also indicative of the lack of importance placed on this core function by the MPS (a 2010 organisational structure available from the internet has crime prevention as a separate department but the latest media report on crime prevention on MPS website cites crime prevention as a unit of the Public Affairs Department). Indeed, the MPS often conflate crime prevention with media and public relations.
Legitimacy of the MPS
The police are defined by the authority to use force—including deadly force—against its citizens. And police officers have huge discretion in using this force. While the law governs how the police should use their power it is often left to individual officers’ discretion to apply the force. Thus, it is imperative that the police are not only held responsible for their actions but also accountable.
Since its very inception the MPS have been criticised for its use of force.
Because the establishment of the MPS coincided with the period of political transition in the Maldives, it has been continuously pulled into political discourses and events. As political demonstrations intensified during the early years of MPS’s inception it failed to practice a Public Order Policing strategy that would be in line with democratic principles.
Between 2004 and 2008 the MPS received huge criticisms and accusations of actively sabotaging pro-democracy rallies and dispersing opposition led public demonstrations fiercely and violently. While the police by its very nature is susceptible to politics and politicians, the police in a democracy should always refrain from being politicised. The police should never overreact to political events or political rhetoric. Nor should the police incite politicians to overreact.
The 2004 to 2008 period could easily be described as the ‘political era’ of the MPS.
The politicised nature of the MPS in these early years continues to haunt the organisation. Furthermore, it is questionable whether or not MPS has been able to leave that behind despite a new Constitution and a new Police Act which mandates the MPS to uphold the law and democratic principles rather than the government.
With a new government elected in November 2008, there were huge expectations that the ‘political era’ of the MPS would end and that policing in the Maldives would begin a new democratic era. Because MPS is a relatively young organisation with a young workforce, however, the new government’s capacity to bring the level of changes it wished for the MPS was perhaps limited.
Because the newly enacted Police Act (2008), which was passed before the Constitution, gives the president the power to appoint the commissioner of police and deputy commissioners of police, there were some changes at the very top of the leadership at the MPS in 2008. However, the new government also failed to initiate or guide a police reform agenda beyond the cosmetic change in leadership positions. And the MPS lacked the capacity and the willingness to reform within.
The extent of politics within the MPS is evident from comments made by senior police officers that they refused to ‘salute’ the newly democratically elected president [Mohamed Nasheed]. While the exact truth behind these sentiments is not clear, it is evident that senior police officers harboured huge resentment against the newly elected government and the new president.
Some, including Abdulla Fairoosh who temporarily took control of the MPS on February 7 2012 as the acting commissioner (despite no reference to such a post in the 2008 Police Act) and Abdulla Riyaz, the commissioner of police appointed on February 8 2013, took study leave soon after the new government had been elected in 2008.
As the events leading up to and of the February 7 and 8 2012 would reveal, far from being a new and apolitical organisation, the MPS remained unchanged.The controversial role the MPS played in the transfer of government on in 2012 is well documented.
The new government’s own Commission of National Inquiry (CONI) found that the police acted beyond its power and authority in the violent dispersion of demonstrators on February 8, 2012. Since then criticisms against the MPS has been that it was too political and if it could be saved from the political interferences, the service could effectively police society.
The recent suspected abduction of journalist and human rights activists Ahmed Rilwan (known in the social media as Moyameeha) has, however, spiralled into a more deserving criticism against the MPS—that service is not only too political, it is incompetent too.
The failure of MPS to provide any substantial information about Rilwan has more and more people questioning the capacity police to provide safety and security to the people of the Maldives. The MPS often blames politicians for interfering with their work, the legislator for not passing necessary laws, the judiciary for not keeping pace with the ‘scientific investigative methods of MPS’ and the corrections system for being a hole in the criminal justice system.
What the MPS fails to understand, however, is that it is the failures of the MPS that has most significantly inhibited effective justice and democracy in the Maldives.
Unless the MPS pay more attention to its core missions—reducing crime, improving safety and gaining legitimacy—there can be little improvement and satisfaction for the citizens of the Maldives. And if the past is of any experience, the MPS lack capacity and willingness to reform within. If any change needs to be brought to the MPS there needs to be a holistic police reform agenda that not only changes the police but policing too.