When Policing Meets Health: International Experts call for Improved Alliance between Law Enforcement and Public Health
The 2nd International Law Enforcement and Public Health Conference, organised by the Centre of Law Enforcement and Public Health (CLEPH) and the Law Enforcement and HIV Network took place between the 5th and 8th of October at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam.
The conference was greeted by public health practitioners, intelligence institutions, local police and non-governmental organisations all uniting around a common theme: public health depends on the police and other arms of law enforcement to achieve our global health agenda, and the police needs public health systems to deal with complex social issues.
Despite the intersection of these two sectors, there is a continued struggle to identify our global police in a health role. The police are seen to criminalise activities (e.g. drug use or sex work). It is also likely that many of us will have visual representations of the police locking up menaces in our communities. Unfortunately, neither arrests nor criminalisation invoke an image of a body with a role to play in public health. 21st century health challenges ask us to consider partnerships, expand our knowledge outwith the medical field and encourage those at the frontline to consider their practices through the lens of prevention and harm reduction. Law enforcement officials are witnessing health and welfare cases, just as much as healthcare professionals. The key element that unites both disciplines in the middle is the most predominant function of all; to protect the public.
The Chief Constable of the Dutch Police Service, Pieter-Jaap Aalbersberg opened the gathering and asked participants to integrate, rather than go deeper for solutions, stating:
“Major advancements in public health tell us that our health is not just about healthy bodies, but healthy lives. This requires more recognition, as well as adjustments to practice. Our Red Light District has existed since 1400. Our approach in Amsterdam is care and empowerment for sex workers, but human trafficking and healthcare combine to deal with victims trafficked against their will.”
EUROPOL’S Director, Rob Wainwright, gave his perspective through a talk entitled “When “International” meets interdisciplinary: fighting crime and reducing harm at a European level.” Wainwright repeated the stance on health’s relationship with crime prevention, recommending that the police should be engaging in discussions with health organisations. He noted an example:
“We supported a research project on access to services for women who experience domestic violence. In Europe 42,000 women cannot reach out to health services because of intimidation and violence from male partners; a daily crime that requires actions from health and law enforcement.”
Wainwright also discussed the problems of policing that hinder a flourishing relationship between public health and the law:
“The police nature and mind-set across Europe is conservative. This must change. For example officers are very reluctant to work with non-governmental organisations because of their lack of structure, but they often have the best relationships with people…Public health and policing have become inseparable now.”
NGOs in attendance included the Open Society Foundation (OSF), a world-leading organisation aiming to shape public policy, human rights, and economic, social and legal reform. Representing OSF’s International Harm Reduction programme, Sanjay Patil drew attention to the lack of funding directed towards health care:
“Billions of dollars is spent on hardware upgrading for law enforcement, rather than building up improved systems for health and social justice.”
Aldo Lale-Demoz, Deputy Executive Director of the UNODC, elaborated on a further component absent in policing and health: a human rights person-centred approach.
“My colleague and Director of the UNODC, Yury Fedotov highlights continuously that many national drug control systems rely on sanctions and imprisonment, rather than evidence-based health care in full compliance with human rights standards.”
The gathering was a unique opportunity to put into perspective that having healthy lives depends on our perception that we are safe. The flow of high crime and rates of poor health cannot be resolved by “top-down” jurisdiction, but it can improve when we recognise those who are involved in aspects of health and crime. Harm reduction is an evolved idea that has become attractive, practical and a commitment. Its values are based upon the person and ensuring that an environment with treatment and options can help to minimise risks.