Backstory: The book 'em club

Cops in Mexico have an image problem. They have a behavior problem, too. I learned that three minutes into renting my first car in Mexico City. Mistakenly I turned into a bus lane. I was flagged over and told the car would be impounded, or I could solve the problem with a little money. It was the holidays. I chose the pesos.

Would that I were alone. By one estimate, the "mordida," or bribe, is so commonplace here that 87 percent of Mexicans will have paid some kind of kickback over the course of their adult life.

So the city of Nezahualcoyotl, historically one of the nation's most crime-riddled towns, has turned to an unlikely solution to curb the graft: books.

In this beleaguered city of 1.2 million outside Mexico City, 1,200 police officers are reading Bertolt Brecht and Raymond Carver and carrying around poetry anthologies, all in an effort to become more "enlightened" – and thus both less devious and less derided. A thinking cop, the theory goes, is a better cop.

"A person who reads is a cultured person, someone with more perspective, who can enter into the mind-set of another person," says Eric Lopez, who coordinates the program.

The book club in Nezahualcoyotl, a city named, appropriately enough, after a 15th-century poet king, is not mandatory. But those who don't participate are precluded from promotion. It is all part of a "professionalization plan" launched in 2005 that spans the usual courses like police technique and physical training, but includes "culture" classes, too.

The officers read and write. They learn new vocabulary to better communicate with the residents they help and even the criminals they detain. They master verb tenses to be able to turn in grammatically correct police reports.

When it was time to celebrate the 400th anniversary of "Don Quixote" in 2005, the officers transcribed parts of the first chapter into the numerical language they use on the job. "In a 22 [place] of La Mancha in whose 62 [name] I don't want to remember ..." begins their work.

Then during last year's World Cup finals, the police in Nezahualcoyotl staged their own tournament. But instead of donning the names of soccer stars on their backs, they wore the names of prominent writers, like Juan Rulfo or Thomas Mann. To be able to play, they had to answer questions about the authors and their works.

This is no small task in a force in which only 15 percent of officers have finished high school, and in a country where, on average, most citizens read just over two books a year.

In the hallways here, the words "teacher" or "class" are never uttered. Instead, participants say "monitor" and "session" – and "homework" is never assigned.

In one recent book club meeting, the atmosphere seemed almost like a ninth-grade literature class, with all the informality and antics, except the pupils were wearing holsters. When a worker in another room sneezed, a chorus of "God bless you" rang out. Everyone laughed.

Later, "monitor" Patricia Leon asked one burly cop to read what was on the chalkboard. "I can't see," he said. More laughter. When it came time for exercises on the proper use of a gerund, students asked their coordinator for pens. "You know you are supposed to bring your own pens," Ms. Leon scolded them, before making two officers put away their cellphones.

But when Leon read an excerpt from a local magazine that had interviewed the rock star Sting about his life as a singer, the class suddenly became engaged. They discussed the value of learning from everyone. And when Leon ended class with a short story from the collection "Tu párvula boca," by Mexican writer Ignacio Trejo Fuentes, the room was rapt and silent.

"You gain things, moral things above all," says Isabel Ramirez, a young officer whose hand was covered in doodles. "It teaches you that you can learn from everyone, even people who have much less knowledge than you."

***

Behind the classes lies a question worthy of Kant: Do books really make better cops? Eduardo Bohorquez, head of Transparencia Mexicana, an anticorruption watchdog group, believes the lessons can help police regain the trust of the community. But ultimately, he says, literature doesn't change values – those are "very personal."

Similarly, Sam Walker, a police expert at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, says the key to rooting out shady cops is a detailed code of conduct and a rigorous internal investigations unit. But he, too, believes that reading Cervantes and Shelley isn't without benefits. "The job of being a police officer is not just chasing people and making arrests," he says. "They have to understand the law, interview people, write reports."

Certainly, one aim of the program is to boost community confidence in police. Many people don't go to the cops because they believe it will bring more problems than solutions. They see them as untrustworthy at best and shakedown artists at worst. "The sight of a cop with a book under his arm breaks stereotypes," says Roberto Perez, a founder of the program.

In its original conception, the police department, a simple yellow structure that sits next to the mayor's office, was to become like a library, where cops could cozy up with the classics. "But giving someone a classic who has never read is like telling someone who's never driven to get in a car and drive," says Mr. Perez.

Buying the classics for 1,200 police, as well as firefighters and rescue workers, was an obstacle, too. So authorities modified their idea, publishing their own books with shorter versions of classics, poetry, and even works by the officers themselves. One cop has published his first novel.

Now bigger plans are in store. Víctor Manuel Bautista López, the mayor, says they hope to launch a high school degree program for all cops this year, and the town is talking to local universities about a college program. Almost all of their new recruits are now high school graduates. "Many have come from difficult environments," says Mr. Bautista López, clad informally in a sweat shirt in his office. "We want them to feel proud."

Jose Jorge Amador, Nezahualcoyotl's head of public security, says that concern about safety is Mexico's gravest problem. Last year, the number of deaths related to drug trafficking in the country nearly doubled, to more than 2,100, over the average of the previous five years. Even Mr. Amador's predecessor, Carlos Ernesto Garcia, is currently serving time in a high-security prison on drug-trafficking charges.

Reading is a small step toward the "transformation" needed, authorities believe. Amador, for one, says the program has already produced some results: In 2003, they recorded about 10 complaints a day against officers. In recent weeks, he says, they haven't received any. The department, too, has received calls from police agencies around the world – including Scotland Yard – about the program.

Still, it's not the kind of book club one might find at Harvard. Forget Dostoyevsky or Voltaire. "They give you a book with 250 pages, and you'll just throw it in the garbage," says police officer Cesar Dorantes of the long or weighty tomes.

Yet, Mr. Dorantes, who had heard of Sherlock Holmes but never read anything by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, says he now has a new hobby. He even swaps books with his co-workers. "It makes you reflect and imagine. Especially the mysteries," he says. "I love trying to figure out what happened, who the assassin is."

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