Sierra Leone

Protecting Myself, Protecting the Nation: Ebola Awareness and Risk Mitigation for Police Officers in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone has been in the midst of a major public health emergency since May 2014 as a result of the 2014 Ebola crisis. The outbreak is the largest in history, and the first in West Africa.

Since the President declared a State of Emergency on July 30th, Police Officers have been deployed to quarantine houses, and to secure checkpoints, hospitals and clinic facilities. They have done so with little or no training on the nature of the outbreak, how to minimize their personal risk of infection, or how to perform their duties in these highly unusual circumstances.

The Police force have been given the massive responsibility of maintaining quarantines of the homes of those who are at high risk of developing Ebola in affected regions.

Kenema town and the surrounding area is a region of high Ebola transmission in Sierra Leone. The Police force has lost three staff in the area in just one month, and a number of police officers have had to be quarantined as they wait to see if symptoms develop. This has resulted in a reduction in the number of police officers available for the response.

Due to their limited training, police officers often lack the knowledge required to manage high-risk situations properly. When a case of Ebola is confirmed in a home, all members of the household must be isolated. In some cases, police officers can be found sitting on the terrace of a quarantined house, eating food the family have cooked.

Many members of the police force have not been properly briefed on the reasons for quarantine. Officers can, as a result, view quarantine as something similar to detention. Quarantined individuals may be permitted to fetch water or go to the market because as long as they do no ‘run away’ the quarantine is being observed in the eyes of the police.

Many officers are also understandably afraid of the risk to themselves and their families. Therefore, their understanding of, and commitment to the role has been raised as an issue. However, the role of the police is extremely important in reducing the ever growing chain of Ebola transmission in the country. It is therefore essential that the police are provided with the appropriate training and fulfil this vital role.

The Chief of Police in Kenema town initially approached GOAL to request their support in the development of basic training in Ebola transmission. GOAL, in collaboration with CDC (the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), developed a programme to address transmission, risk assessment and risk mitigation in workplaces.

A major part of the training is focused on ‘Empathetic Policing’, where police officers are given skills in listening and communicating to resolve conflict. This is especially critical to the response as, for safety reasons, there is a ‘no touching’ policing policy in place. This makes the standard policing methods of arrest and physical restraint impossible.

The training programme also elicits a major shift in perspective for the police in Sierra Leone, as it encourages law enforcers to see individuals who are Ebola-positive as victims rather than criminals.

Recently, trainers had the privilege of hosting an Ebola Survivor, who attended as a guest speaker. Juliana, who has lost a number of family and friends to Ebola, was willing to come to speak to the trainees about her experience, as well as about the challenges she faced following her discharge as a result of the stigma attached to the disease.

Juliana spoke about how the police can be champions for those who are sick or affected by the disease. By training the police officers to accept and understand people who have survived Ebola, they will be able to pass on this positive message both in their police work and to their families and community.

In Sierra Leone, GOAL is well established and respected in the Child Empowerment and Protection sector. Since the start of the Ebola outbreak, GOAL has increased its footprint in this area, given the large numbers of children and youth who have been left without families due to their parents being hospitalised, having died or because they are stigmatized as survivors.

GOAL is capitalising on its experience and expertise in this area. The organisation is integrating child-friendly policing into the training for the police, thus ensuring robust referral systems for children in need.

GOAL Sierra Leone has already rolled out this training and will graduate 2500 police officers in the coming weeks in three of the main hotspot regions. GOAL also plans to scale up this intervention nationally, and also anticipates the adaption of the training for the military.

The Sierra Leone Police’s mandate is to protect life, and this training will help keep the lives of the protectors safe in this complex and challenging situation.

Gillian McKay

Roving Behaviour Change and Gender Officer, GOAL Sierra Leone