Policing in the wake of terror

How law enforcement can build positive, productive relationships with Muslim communities to combat terrorism.

Screenshot (8)Police overreach in the wake of terrorist attacks alienates Muslims in the West and can aid the recruiting efforts of radical groups. To effectively combat terrorism, law enforcement entities must police with respect and fairness. Adrian Cherney, a criminology expert at the University of Queensland, explains how.

ResearchGate: How do terrorist attacks like those in Paris and their aftermath affect Muslims in Western countries?

Adrian Cherney: Unfortunately, all Muslims are impacted by the events in Paris. It reinforces perceptions that Islam and Muslims present a threat to the West. It is a form of attribution, guilt by association. There will be greater pressure on Muslim leaders to speak out and for Muslim communities to take the issue of radicalization, especially among young Muslims, more seriously. It will require greater introspection among all parties – governments, police, Muslim communities, etc. – to develop robust responses that preserve community safety, but at the same time don't overreach, especially in relation to their impact on Muslim communities and Muslims’ sense of belonging and perceived value in Western countries. This last point is important because overreach is exactly what groups like ISIS want – it can help their cause. Overreach can take a number of forms, e.g. increased laws, over-policing, increased surveillance and profiling, more police stops. These can lead Muslim communities to feel over-policed and under siege and make them feel like second class citizens and a victimized minority. This point is easily exploited by extremists who appeal to a sense of victimization among young Muslims in particular to recruit them to their cause. Hence responses to terrorism need to be carefully managed.

RG: Is the effect predominantly felt in the country where the attack has taken place? What about other countries?

Cherney: The way such attacks tarnish Muslim communities is felt well beyond the immediate country. It has a ripple effect. Here in Australia for example, Muslim leaders felt the need to speak out against the attacks in Paris and also voiced concern these events would lead to increased vilification of Australian Muslims.

RG: How do terrorist attacks influence the way law enforcement deals with Muslim communities?

Cherney: The way police deal with and engage the Muslim community is in the hands of police to influence. Following such attacks in Paris there is no doubt a demand for law enforcement to display a show of force and take decisive action. This is understandable. But the Paris attacks also illustrated that no matter how robust your laws or sophisticated the levels of electronic surveillance and intelligence collection, there is only so much law enforcement can do. This also applies to monitoring known or potential extremists. Hence community contacts and human sourced intelligence also becomes important. Cultivating these sources requires time. The main approach to terrorism has been a tendency to rely on strengthening existing laws and introducing new terrorist related offences. Expanding police powers can be important in the context of preemption, but again, they can only can help so far. As I have had police say to me in relation to tackling the problem of terrorism and violent extremism, "we can't arrest our way out of this problem."

RG: Does the focus on tougher laws make counterterrorism cooperation between Muslim communities and police forces more difficult?

Cherney: It can make cooperation difficult. Community intelligence is an essential part of any counter-terrorism effort. The problem is that Muslims are suspicious of efforts by police to engage their community, seeing it simply as a form of intelligence gathering, rather than a sincere effort to address concerns. Also, Muslims who engage and work with police, can be labeled “sell outs” by other Muslims. The problem is that groups like ISIS exploit these perceptions and in their efforts to recruit and radicalize young Muslims, say to them they cannot trust their leaders because they are colluding with authorities. In this sense, encouraging greater levels of cooperation is not just hard for police, but is also challenging for Muslims who are sincerely concerned about the impact of jihadist ideology on their youth.

RG: How can these obstacles be overcome?

Cherney: It is all about building trust. Of course knowing how to do that is not always straight forward. However, there are some practices authorities can implement. My research shows that when police use a “procedural justice” approach when engaging Muslim communities, Muslims are more likely to want to cooperate with police in counter-terrorism efforts. Importantly, we also find that when Muslims trust police and believe that police are using procedural justice, they are less likely to believe that terrorists have valid grievances. There are four elements of procedural justice: respect, neutrality, fairness and voice. This practice involves police treating people in a neutral way, fairly during encounters, respectfully and also providing people opportunity to have a say in decisions that affect them. Profiling of Muslims, for instance, violates perceptions of neutrality; police can show respect by displaying an understanding of the Islamic religion; consulting the Muslim community provides opportunity for voice, i.e. input into decision-making. This not about some form of special treatment just for Muslims, but is about enhancing police effectiveness.  It shows that police can do things that can make a difference.

RG: Are the cooperation challenges similar across Western societies?

Cherney: There are differences. We need to recognize the diversity of the Muslim community. It is not uniform, and there are divisions along ethnic and cultural lines. No one group or organization can claim to represent the majority of Muslims. Examples include divisions relating to Shia and Sunni populations, differences relating to Muslims who are first vs. second generation immigrants, and religious outlook. This diversity will lead to different perceptions as to how terrorism and the threat of violent extremism should be addressed, as well as whether Muslims should cooperate and collaborate with authorities.

Featured image courtesy of Chris Rojas.