Toll-free number helps police

PNG has a reputation for high crime rate. The public sector is under-resourced and the police is underfunded. Research conducted over the years indicate widespread distrust of police, their unreliable responses to reported crimes and low arrest rates, AMANDA WATSON, DORIS MARARANG and JUDY PUTT write
Signage on a police vehicle in Lae. – Picture by Judy Putt

PNG has a reputation for high rates of crime, especially in its urban centres.
The public sector is under-resourced, with the size of and funding for the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary (RPNGC) not keeping abreast of the country’s rapid rise in population.
Public surveys and research conducted over the years indicated the widespread distrust of the police, their unreliable responses to reported crimes and low arrest rates.
A public/private partnership led to the founding of a toll-free emergency police telephone line in PNG’s second largest urban centre, Lae.
A toll-free emergency police telephone line in Lae was developed to address complaints about the lack of police responsiveness received by the then metropolitan superintendent through social media.
In partnership with Digicel, a telecommunications company with 92 per cent of the mobile phone market share in PNG, the Lae Metropolitan Command established the telephone line in mid-2016, though the official launch was somewhat later.

Digicel tower in Barikas, Madang, 2009. – Picture by Amanda Watson

Open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, the aim of the service was for the public to make free, confidential calls in emergencies, report suspicious or illegal activity and provide intelligence on planned crime or the whereabouts of offenders.
The toll-free number was promoted through signs on bus stops and police vehicles, newspaper articles and 500,000 text messages sent by Digicel to their clients.
When a call is received, the time and place of the reported incident are logged at the metropolitan communications centre and where needed, police at stations or on patrol in public safety vehicles, were contacted and asked to respond.
Originally, set up to cover Lae city and its surrounding settlements, the telephone number has now been used in rural areas of the province and other parts of the country that have Digicel network coverage.
However, Lae police do not have the capacity to respond to non-Lae calls and can only try to contact their counterparts in the relevant locations.
The costs of establishing and operating the service were borne jointly by Digicel and the RPNGC, with additional assistance from other stakeholders.
Key stakeholders referred to the following as having contributed to the successful establishment of the toll-free line:

  • Leaders of Digicel and the Lae Metropolitan Command working closely together from the outset;
  • Digicel not charging for the establishment of the line and the ongoing costs of calls, as the service was viewed as a way to promote the company, reward its customers and give back to the community;
  • Financial, logistical and in-kind support from the local business community, the local member of Parliament and the Australian federal police;
  • Recruiting the “right people” for the small team of four who operate the communications centre; and,
  • Expanding the police’s capacity to respond to the calls by extending the operating hours of the police public safety vehicles.
Figure 1: Most common incidents reported to the Lae toll-free emergency line, 2018.

During the initial phase of the line in 2016–17, it was estimated that 60 per cent of calls were from the public, 25 per cent were from police officers and the remainder (15 per cent) were missed, false information or abusive calls.
In 2018, there were a total of 3,119 calls about crime incidents, plus 105 missed calls, 401 abusive calls and 10 false calls, as well as a small number of text messages.
As of last August, use of the line increased to an estimated 1,500 calls per month, with the afternoon shift receiving the most calls and text messages (53 per cent) compared to the night (19 per cent) and morning shifts (28 per cent).
With demand on the rise, an increasing proportion of calls were not answered.
During the first three months of last year, one-fifth (20 per cent) of 1,534 calls were recorded as missed, with a small proportion recorded as abusive (4 per cent).
Based on 2018 statistics, a broad range of incidents were reported in calls to the telephone line, including suicides and traffic accidents.
As figure one shows, many incidents related to violent crime and disorderly behaviour.
Major violent crimes were also reported, albeit less frequently, with 43 murders or attempted murders and 46 serious sexual assault or rapes reported during the year.
This blog was first published as DPA In Brief 2020/8, and is the second in a two-part series that is appearing on the Devpolicy blog’.

Dr Amanda Watson is a research fellow with the department of pacific affairs, Australian National University.

Doris Mararang is employed by the Royal Papua New Guinea Constabulary.

Dr Judy Putt is a research fellow at the ANU department of Pacific Affairs.

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