Effective police training requires a secure environment. That may seem self-evident, but for Canadian police it’s a hard lesson drawn from almost two decades of experience in police peacekeeping operations around the world.

In countries where the military and the police were often synonymous, the challenge of developing an independent civilian police force is no small task. But it’s one the RCMP and officers from provincial, regional and municipal forces have helped with since 1989 to great effect, shouldering responsibility within multinational missions for training and reforming police institutions, monitoring and ensuring compliance with international agreements, and assisting with investigations of war crimes and criminal activity.

And while they have done so in precarious circumstances, it’s in a post-conflict environment where they have been most successful. It’s a lesson Doug Coates is mindful of as officers with the provincial reconstruction team in Kandahar work to develop the nascent Afghan National Police.

“Police are not generally trained to work in a conflict environment, and the lack of security makes it almost impossible to do training,” acknowledges Coates, the RCMP’s recently appointed director of the International Peace Operations Branch. “The lessons learned out of Bosnia and Kosovo were that, while we could be present in a conflict environment, our role was limited. If we are truly to support development and strengthening police capacity within a failed or failing state, we’re better to concentrate our efforts in pre- or post-conflict environments – that is where we can really start having a significant impact.

“So until there is a higher level of security in Afghanistan, we can do certain things. But our real contribution will come once there is a more secure and stable environment.”

Coates is a veteran of the UN mission in Haiti and conducted evaluations of missions in the Balkans and Africa. He recently returned to lead the branch after three years with the Pearson Peacekeeping Centre. Those experiences have taught him that much can be accomplished when the conditions and the mandate are in synch.

In 1999, the RCMP deployed a small force as part of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) verification mission in Kosovo. The government, under the Canadian Police Arrangement, later deployed 100 officers as part of a UN mission that swelled to more than 5,000 civilian police with an executive mandate. Canada also sent two 17-person forensic teams to assist the International Criminal Tribunal.

“We were the police of jurisdiction,” Coates said. “There was no Kosovo police service at that time, so we had to create it from zero. We found that we (international policing community) were incredibly effective in that environment.”

In part, he attributes that success to the experience gained by Canadian officers working the streets of multi-ethnic cities. “Canadian contingents are made up of some 30 different partners from across Canada. They are well educated and well trained and work in culturally and ethnically diverse environments, and so they are well prepared to work in an international environment.”

Lessons from the Balkans offer some guidance for operations in Afghanistan, but they are not a good comparison to the challenges of training the ANP, Coates cautions. “The concept for now is to bring the ANP from outlying regions into the training facility, but there are a number of problems associated with that: security, transportation, selection related to who accesses the training. We have explored the possibility of sending our people to the forward operating bases to do the training there, but have to assess the risk level prior to each deployment.“

He stresses the need to consider regional implications when preparing peace operations. “These conflicts are not limited to the country in conflict, they generally have a regional impact. What is happening in Somalia impacts Kenya and Ethiopia, and what’s happening between Ethiopia and Eritrea is spilling over. It can create huge refugee challenges, and the movement of people often means movement of illicit commodities, which leads to a sudden surge in organized crime groups who are able to take advantage of those unstable conditions. Many of the indigenous law enforcement agencies just don’t have the capacity to deal with those consequences of conflict.

“One of the lessons we have learned is that conflict in one country results in tremendous challenges for the law enforcement structures in neighbouring countries, and we should be adopting a regional approach to support broader peace and security and to ensure that those institutions do not collapse and conflict does not spread. As we are looking at the development of Canadian strategy for failed and failing states, we need to look at how we can leverage capacity within the Canadian Police Arrangement. We haven’t really utilized our Canadian police resources in that manner of regional deployments.”

Coates also recognizes that, to conduct successful multinational and multi-partner operations, police must invest more in interoperability efforts with others in the field. Though the concept has worked well to date in Canada’s PRT in Kandahar, he would like to see more joint planning and joint training before officers embark on joint operations.

“We have been doing it, but we need to take it from where it is now – mission to mission – to actually developing a more permanent capacity to work to together. We’re doing it in many other areas on the domestic side, but we haven’t taken it to the point where I would like to see it, to truly demonstrate that we are working jointly in our planning processes and our intelligence processes in relation to international peace operations. Clearly, we have seen an evolution of our respective roles and a tremendous amount of overlap, and some of that has created grey areas. We need ongoing dialogue between police, military and others to further explore that and come to an understanding of what are our respective roles, where we compliment one another and how we can work closely together.”

Coates spent two months earlier this year seconded to the Australian federal police examining their management strategy. Interoperability, he said, “is one of their priorities. And I would like to see it become one of ours.”