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Police and harm reduction - notes from the recent international meeting

Ngày 21 tháng 10 năm 2018

This week I attended two linked events in Amsterdam, both of which are very relevant to our harm reduction programming:

  • A consultation on HIV and law enforcement, organised by LEAHN — Law Enforcement and HIV Network
  • A conference on Law Enforcement and Public Health

Both meetings were very different to the meetings I normally attend for one main reason – half of the attendees were police.  Police officers from all over the world.  As many of you will know, LEAHN operates by identifying and supporting senior police officers in HIV key countries (LEAHN focal points) who undertake to improve policing practice, in particular with key populations, in order to strengthen their national HIV responses.  There is a strong emphasis on harm reduction/PWID, but also police officers who are working constructively with sex workers.  The attention to MSM communities was not very clear.

LEAHN focal points (senior police officials) were present at the meetings from Kenya, Vietnam, Ukraine, Cambodia and other Alliance countries.

Some Asia Action colleagues in particular will be familiar with their country’s LEAHN focal points.  In many cases they are committed to change, and have influence in their national settings.

Our SCDI colleagues from Vietnam were present at the meeting also, working alongside a very high level delegation from Vietnam made up of a senior government official, three senior police officers, and our colleague Oanh from SCDI.  It was great to see this partnership working, and we heard about some interesting plans to improve policing practice in Vietnam. 

A photo of Oanh, police and govt officials from Vietnam, colleagues from StopAIDS and OSF, and me J.

Here are some reflections from the meetings:

  • Including sex workers and PWID in trainings for police ‘radically transforms’ this training, and is highly recommended.
  • Changing policing culture is not an overnight project.  Many commentators talked about the need to be patient and that demonstrable outcomes will take 6 – 12 months.
  • A lot of people talked about the need to appeal to police interests in order to bring about change.  What’s in it for police?  Suggested motivations for change include appealing to police’s concerns for occupation health and safety – working together to ensure that police learn about HIV transmission dynamics to both protect themselves, their partners and their communities.
  • Lots of discussion on incentives, and the need to change incentives.  Many police officers spoke about the need to change police practice that incentivises arrests of street drug users and sex workers – in order to fulfil arrest quotas.  Very common problem – police targeting drug users and sex workers in order to fulfil their arrest quotas.  Can we change the quota system so that police officers are incentivised to refer drug users to methadone programmes, or ART clinics?
  • Incentives need to exist on both sides.  Sex worker activists reminded the group that sex workers potentially have a lot to lose if they work with (for) police.  So encouraging better relations bw key populations and police requires efforts to protect key populations from being seen as ‘informants’ or from jeopardising privacy.
  • Linked to above, there were a lot of discussions and sessions on diversion systems – diverting people arrested for drug consumption offences to treatment rather than through the criminal justice system.
  • Acknowledgement that police institutions are conservative institutions and subject to political interference.
  • Acknowledgement that police are poorly paid in many countries, and that this fuels police engagement in extortion and bribery, particularly targeting key populations, for example ‘we’re going to tell your family unless you pay’ etc.
  • Examples of good practice between sex workers and police in Kenya. 

Susie McLean
Senior Adviser:  Drug Use and HIV

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