Nick Crofts is an epidemiologist and honorary professor at the Melbourne School of Population Health in Australia, with experience in public health in the field of HIV/AIDS, drugs, harm reduction and law enforcement. He is one of the cofounders of the Law Enforcement and HIV Network. We took advantage of his participation at the Informal Drug Policy in Southeast Europe in Athens, in October 2014, and discussed LEAHN’s activities and the role of the police in the protection of public health in this region.
Can you tell us what the original idea behind the Network was and what is the role of the police in public health?
For me personally, and I think for a lot of other people, working in HR, particularly in transitional or developing countries, we found very early on, that the police were very important part of the work, and in most cases they were barriers to the work, so the police were opposed to the HR in most countries, most times, and slowly the realization came that if we were going to successfully integrate HR in the normal practice, we had to get the police on our side. There are other efforts to get the police on our side, through policy reform, legal reform, but very few people were actually working with the police. And in our work, we ran across police who were sympathetic, and supportive and understanding, but did not know what to do. Increasingly, we found that those police benefited by becoming a part of a global network. And knowing that there were other policemen who feel the same way, and are trying to work to change the attitude of police towards drug users, towards HR, and the Law Enforcement HIV network was set up to link those police together to give them peer support, so that they feel more secure and supported in what they do, and to help support them in advocacy and education work that they do with their colleagues. So now we have a network of 16 serving and retired police acts as country focal points in different developing and transitional countries that do educational activities with their colleagues, within their own police agencies and educate for HR and educate police how to work better with the affected population.
Civic organizations that implement harm reduction programs and the police aren’t enemies?
Look, in most of the world, in my estimation, they are still enemies, but there are an increasing numbers of examples where people have managed to build bridges between the program and the police. And sometimes it comes from the program, and particularly in sex work. There are examples of SW organizations, like in India, which have made it a priority of working with the police, and they have been really tough, really strong, in building a relationship with the police. Sometimes it comes from the police, and often it needs a broker, somebody who brings the two together around the table. And increasingly, there are more examples of programs and police working together in much more consensual way, so sitting down around a table, discussing their problems, choosing coming goals, finding ways to work together, finding ways to overcome the stigma and the discrimination, and the resistance on both sides, because not only do police have very bad attitudes towards drug users and SWs, but because of their experience, of course, the DUs and SWs don’t like the police. So, there are two sides to overcome towards a better and effective partnership, but increasingly, there are examples around the world where this is happening and is being seen as the way forward and it doesn’t affect just the situation with HIV. Because once that relationship is formed it affects all the other relationships, the police are much more likely to look at the DU as a person, to support links with mental health or drug treatment services, we see examples here about police cooperation with mental health services, so DUs don’t get arrested […]. So building a bridge around HIV prevention actually opens up the possibility about much better relationship across a whole range of issues.
You mentioned several examples of good cooperation between harm reduction programs and the police. Could you give us some examples from Europe, particularly from Eastern Europe, examples of good communication between the police and harm reduction programs?
Well, I have found out here about a situation in Romania, and I want to go and see this, because it sounds terrific, still problems, but much progress made. Where our country focal points are working, in Ukraine and Moldova, and Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, in some cases it’s still early days, but there is increasing training of police how to work the harm reduction and the drug users communities increasingly there is awareness of the possibilities for working together. I am not really knowledgeable enough to know that there have been good working relationships formed here, but certainly there is progress in changing police attitudes.
And my last question. In your experience, what is the best way to train police officers? Is it peer approach, or police officers themselves doing the education, or do you think drug users should be included in the process?
I think both, absolutely necessary. Because police learn from other police. And my experience is that even when you get training on HR into the police academy, so that the recruit is trained about HR, when that recruit goes into the field, it’s the attitude of the police is different from what has been thought in the academy, then what’s thought in the academy disappears. So, you have to have ongoing peer education and professional development for police, when they are on the job. But breaking down the stereotypes, because the police represent their culture, they come from a community, and represent community attitudes, these attitudes are reinforced often when they come in contact, with more experienced police. So having meetings between police and civil society and between police and drug users and NGO, and not just one-offs, but ongoing, some form of ongoing connection, it humanizes people, they stop being the enemies, the demons. When you think the only time most police officers come in contact with drug users is in a situation of conflict, then it is easy to understand why a police officer builds up a very negative picture of drug users. So to meet the DUs in a different context, round a neutral table, where there’s mutual respect, really changes the whole attitude of the police and of the drug users, and you start to achieve more common ground, and more mutual respect.