x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Emiratis fear the police station stigma

For many, dealing with the police is too time consuming and shameful. The force needs to adopt a friendlier approach to break the stigma of reporting crime.

DUBAI // Aisha Obeid says she will never enter a police station - not even to report a crime.

It is not because she is afraid that criminals might seek revenge if she reports a crime; it is for fear of the stigma attached to being seen there.

"It's socially unacceptable to enter a police station or deal with police," says the 20-year-old housewife from Fujairah. "It ruins one's reputation. My husband would not have married me if I had been going to police stations."  

Mrs Obeid, in fact, goes to great lengths to avoid the necessity of even going near one. She says her husband had registered her car in his name so she would not have to go there herself in the event of a car accident. 

Her feelings are not unique: not in Arab societies in general, and not in Emirati society in particular. There is a prevalent attitude that people should keep away from police because of a deep-rooted fear that they can get into trouble themselves by dealing with them. 

"Refraining from dealing with police is partly caused by the fact that it is not acceptable to report many problems, such as violence against children or women," says Dr Ahmad Alomosh, a professor of Applied Sociology at Sharjah University. 

Studies by Dubai Police have identified several factors responsible for the communication gap between the authorities and those they are charged with protecting. An example is the social perception that personal life is private and should not be made public.

People are not accustomed to talking about their problems, so those who report criminal cases to police are considered to be scandalising themselves. 

Other factors include a historical element. Law enforcement authorities have tended to play an oppressive role in Arab societies, influencing the present-day social view of the police - despite their role having changed to a more service-based function.

The psychological impact of the past is so powerful that many Arab families still portray police figures as menacing to influence their children's behaviour.  

"When children are small they are told that if they do not behave they will be taken to the police, as a means of scaring them," says Lt Col Jasim Merza, who heads the Dubai Police security awareness department.

"This fear does not disappear when those children grow up; they become suspicious of the police and avoid dealing with them."  

This fear and stigma also means that many crimes go unreported by the victims. "In our society, some people do not report house burglaries if the amount stolen is little, because they believe that contacting the police would cost them more in time and effort, and damage their reputation," Lt Col Merza says. 

Mooza Fahed, a 30-year-old Qatari housewife, says it is unacceptable to report wrongdoing unless it involved a serious issue. "I would not report minor offences like verbal assault," she says. "We tend to want to solve our problems peacefully without police intervention." 

Ashraf Wahba, 32, from Egypt, shop manager from Al Ain, says he solved small issues with customers and would report only serious offences. 

Dr Alomosh says the police should be more proactive in changing their image, including making more casual contact during their rounds and projecting a friendlier attitude. 

"Police need to have a dialogue with the public to change their attitude and educate them about their actual role," he says.    

Dubai Police have started doing so already, Lt Col Merza says. "We are always looking into ways to bridge the gap between public and police and change the misconceptions about police," he says.

"We carry out awareness campaigns to educate the public of the actual role of police and the need to report crime, regardless of how minor, to have a safe society." 

Their efforts may be bearing fruit: Halima Mohammed, a 27-year-old Emirati from Dubai, says she wouldn't hesitate to seek help from authorities. "Police are here to protect society and provide us with services, and this is how they should be viewed," she says.