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Batumi Riots Expose Shortfalls in Police Reform
Civil Georgia, Tbilisi / 13 Mar.'17 / 23:53
Jaba Devdariani

Rioting in a resort town of Batumi on 11 March, when an isolated incident over a parking ticket escalated into street violence has exposed deep shortfalls in country’s policing.

Georgia has rightly been hailed as a frontrunner in eliminating petty corruption in the police and recognized for instituting a modern patrol police. But the reforms have stagnated. Country’s policing structure and approaches remain fundamentally under-developed in several key areas.

The trigger of the riots – a parking fine which the sparked a scuffle with police officers – was exacerbated by the multiple levels of policing failure. According to post-factum media reports, Patrol Police, known for its relatively consistent application of regulations and fines all over Georgia, was particularly lenient in Batumi. When the newly appointed police chief decided to crack down, the tensions ensued and eventually, boiled over.

In this single event, the negative impact of political expediency on operational policing, the weak of delegation of authority, lapses in communication, and a failure in instituting preventive policing all came into a sharp focus.

No professional line of command

During and after the escalation, the Minister of Interior Giorgi Mgebrishvili spoke about the operational police actions and addressed the media queries. This continues a long - and fundamentally flawed - tradition of political appointees taking charge of operational decisions and actions.

Police operations must be planned, coordinated and implemented by the police officials – uniformed civil servants – whose scope of authority is clearly defined by the law, and whose the rules of conduct and engagement are set out relevant regulations, making them transparent and predictable to the public.

While the Minister of Interior is responsible for overall policy, he cannot direct police operations. The (uniformed) Chief of Police must be in operational charge, with regional/local police chiefs reporting directly to her/him. The Chief of Police must be appointed from the pool of senior career police officers, preferably by the board including the Minister, but also the internal and parliamentary oversight officials, for a fixed term in office.

This is the key best practice of the European policing: it ensures professional conduct, accountability to public, as well as diminishes political interference on the operational level.

Insufficient delegation and decentralization

Riots are never a pleasant occurrence. Yet, they are a recurring urban phenomenon that can efficiently be handled at the city – or in case of escalation, regional – level.

Taking into account the relatively modest number of aggressive rioters compared to the city population, the City Police Department and Batumi Police Chief should have taken operational command, and should have communicated to the public on behalf of the Police. The riots of this size and intensity may erupt after a routine football match, so the local police must be ready and empowered to respond quickly, without consulting the hierarchy.

Overly centralized system of policing is reducing local police chiefs to mechanical implementers of policing, rather than empowering them to be the managers of security.

Combined with the need to consult political decision-makers, such system also critically slows decision-making in emergencies, which carries heavy costs – both material and in terms of human injury and a potential loss of life and limb.

Weak communication

Linked to decentralization is communication. Empowered Police Chiefs should be ready to speak to the public directly as well as through trained police spokespersons to inform them about the threats, as well as about the actions that the police has taken or is planning to take.

Batumi riots were striking by the absence of local police officials in the media and in public communications. They follow up to the events that occupied country’s headlines was also scarce. The regular operational follow up after Batumi events should have included the detailed chronology of the events, including as the localization of the key flashpoints and the actions that the police has taken. None of these were made available. The snippets of information regarding the number of the detained and injured were – again – communicated by the political officials.

Detailed, clear and fact-based communication is an important part of police accountability to the public. It allows the citizens as well as the elected officials to judge police actions against the predictable and explicit rules of engagement.

Strategic analysis and community policing

Some riots may erupt spontaneously, but the media post-mortem on Batumi events suggests that the rioters were mobilizing well ahead of the events. At least some social media posts pointed to this development. The parking ticket incident just served as a random trigger, which ignited the pre-positioned powder kegs. If the Batumi Police was pursuing analytical (preventive), rather than reactive policing, it would have been able to address the threat early.

Importantly, one element of mobilization seems to have been an alleged slur against Adjarians by the Patrol Police Chief (which comes from another province of Georgia). This allegation has not been corroborated, but it was successfully used for protest mobilization, suggesting weakness in police communication with the populace. While being a national service, the Police must involve a maximum of locals within its ranks, to better understand the context and also to be perceived as a part of that community.

The Police must also proactively engage the community to identify and address neighborhood concerns and threats. The initial drive towards community policing, publicized in 2006-2007 has unfortunately petered out. This stream of information generated by community police would feed into analytical policing, allowing the Police to respond the concerns early on.

What to do?

The necessary actions to take are simple, but they require a fundamental adjustment in policing psychology. Georgia must:

  • Appoint the Chief of Police and ensure that the operational line of command stops at her/his level. Political appointees should define the operational policy – i.e. identify and approving the rules and practices of engagement. But their interference should go no further.
  • Empower and train the Regional Police Chiefs to act as managers of security and a public face of the police.
  • Improve Police Communications – train and appoint public information officers in all police stations, establish common rules of communication and reporting on key types of police actions that affect the population or require their collaboration (e.g. natural emergencies, riots, peaceful protests, public events, hot pursuit, etc.)
  • Institute Community Policing – engage police officers with the communities at the level of townships and municipalities to jointly discuss threat perceptions. Feed this information into broader analytical framework.
  • Move the Ministry of Interior hierarchy towards preventive policing – enhance the analytical capability at the Ministry of Internal Affairs to receive and digest the operational data into actionable intelligence, but also to use threat analysis for adjusting the police need for allocation of personnel, their training, as well as for revising the rules of engagement, as need be.

Jaba Devdariani has worked closely with police reform officers in Serbia on behalf of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) in 2006-2011

Opinions expressed on Civil.ge commentary page are authors` own and do not reflect the editorial position of Civil.ge

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