More Police a Necessity for PNG

by seangljacobs

Having enough police is essential for a successful society

Sean Jacobs, Australian Security Magazine, December 2013

A series of horrific murders in Papua New Guinea (PNG) have catapulted the nation of seven million into newspapers across the world. Separate incidents involving the hacking to death of porters on PNG’s Kokoda Track, and reports from earlier this year of burnings and decapitations of women suspected of sorcery, have fanned the country’s international reputation as a resource-potent but largely unsettled chokepoint between South East Asia and the Pacific Islands.

Beneath these stories is the inadequate size of PNG’s police force – the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) – whose remit is stopping this kind of violence and putting its perpetrators before trial.

PNG has roughly seven million people, but only 5000 police officers to ‘secure a safer community’. As a national average, PNG maintains one police officer for roughly 1400 people (1:1400). However, the standard set by the United Nations to maintain a reasonable level of law and order is 1:400.  In some areas, such as PNG’s Northern Province, the ratio has expanded to as wide as 1:2700. Responding to horrific violence and other crimes in PNG is clearly difficult with such a small police force.

While PNG’s population has near-doubled since it was granted independence from Australia in 1975 the size of the RPNGC has remained largely unchanged. There are two broad explanations for this.

Firstly, political volatility has dominated PNG’s political landscape since 1975. Cabinet reshuffles, weak party discipline and ever-shifting political loyalties within the national parliament have not only resulted in corruption and excessive self-interest but also jeopardised consensus on the endurance of national goals. Enlarging the size and quality of the RPNGC may have been identified in PNG Government strategic planning documents for some time, but it is now merely one priority among a growing list of education, health and infrastructure challenges.

Secondly, a strong police force is seen in some quarters as undermining the prestige of politicians and the Government. As the Australian journalist Don Woolford observed of PNG’s military as far back as the 1970s, “Civic action patrols, in which soldiers went into villages to build bridges, schools, and other needed facilities, were… considered a danger because they would give the military a higher status in village eyes than Government officers.” The PNG Defence Force has thus been kept small and never been properly resourced.

Similar political motivations exist for the RPNGC. A capable and decent RPNGC, by tackling local crime, responding to citizens’ crime concerns and exposing corruption, could garner more public credibility than politicians as champions of local needs.

But as many international examples point out, for PNG to increase the size of its police force, keen political investment is critical. In South Africa, for example, a nation which shares an equally fierce reputation for criminal violence as PNG, thousands of police were recruited into the South African Police Service for the 2010 Football World Cup. The South African Government ensured enough police were available, resourced and visible for this landmark global event. Out of necessity, it seems, vested political interests quickly evaporated.

To take a broader perspective, in New York City in the mid-1990s, then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s mandate in cleaning up city streets and reducing crime has now become legendary. A relentless pursuit of criminals, a commitment to crime statistics and the repair of public spaces saw a dramatic uptick in public safety in New York City. But recruiting more police officers was also critical to the effort. As put by William Bratton – the New York Police Department Commissioner behind the crime reduction strategies – “The public wanted to feel more protected, they wanted to see more cops on the beat.”

But based on previous failed efforts at strengthening and enlarging the RPNGC, some have questioned the pursuit of improving a State-led police force in a society like PNG, where individuals generally reserve loyalty for the kinship or family group over the State.  In PNG this is referred to as the ‘Wantok’ system, which means in the Pidgin dialect ‘someone who speaks my language’.  While this cultural tradition is not unique to PNG, it seriously hampers efforts to build up State law enforcement.

There is also a long way to go in building a decent public image of the RPNGC, whose legitimacy has steadily corroded in recent years through reports of corruption, brutality, disciplinary problems and other issues of police violence. 

But recent trends, such as strengthening the criminal code and reinstating the death penalty, imply that PNG’s citizens and political leaders are steadily expecting more from the Government in taking tougher sanctions on crime.  Enlarging the size of the police force will no doubt feature highly in these expectations.

Amid countless setbacks there is some cause for optimism. In early 2013, RPNGC officers in Mount Hagen in the PNG Highlands were able to save two elderly women accused of sorcery from being burned alive. Twenty arrests were made. The more police officers PNG has at its disposal, the more chances there are for stories like these to emerge, rather than the chilling alternatives the world has seen from PNG in 2013.