Latin American police get 'citizen friendly' to fight bad reputation

Latin American police, seen by many in the region as part of the problem rather than the solution to crime, are trying to boost their involvement in and response to their communities.

By , Contributor , Staff writer

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    A police officer guards a mall in Morelia, Mexico, after armed gunmen robbed a store. Because of citizens’ distrust of police, an estimated 92 percent of Mexico’s crimes go unreported.
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Jaime López Victoria taped a small flier with the photos and cellphone numbers of three local cops to the cash register at the convenience store where he works in Mexico City.

Customers at first might think the clerk is warning residents to steer clear of the three men, as poorly paid cops here are better known for extracting bribes and colluding with organized crime than enforcing the law.

But Mr. López is actually helping his customers reach out to cops as part of a new police program here to increase residents' familiarity with authorities and reduce police response times.

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“They stopped by and told me who was in charge, who was on patrol, who was on a bike,” López says.

The need for such confidence-building initiatives extends across Latin America. Only 16 percent of respondents across 18 regional countries say security is good or very good in their countries, and 31 percent say police corruption is the reason that states can't seem to get crime under control, according to the latest poll by the Latinobarómetro Corporation, a nonprofit based in Santiago, Chile. Now efforts are under way across the region to restore citizens' faith in their local protectors.

Community-friendly policing

Various countries have embarked on purges and integrity testing in an effort to professionalize forces. Venezuela disbanded its Metropolitan Police of Caracas this year, part of ongoing reform, while Guatemala named a commission to hunt police corruption. Mexico had to dispatch its military and federal forces to fight organized crime in 2006, as local and state forces were not up to the task.

But simple confidence building, such as handing out cellphones, and other community-friendly policing tactics, are critical to fighting crime in this region, experts say.

"The higher level of confidence [that residents have] in police, the lower level of perceived crime," says Joseph Tulchin, former director of the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. "If you feel good about your police, when asked what you think of the crime rate, the answer is always more optimistic." That, in turn, creates a community neighborhood watch of sorts. On the other hand, “if you think police are useless or corrupt or worse, why should you bother? You stay indoors and lock your door.”

Most experts say the most ambitious program to rebuild a community police force is taking shape in Rio de Janeiro, where "Pacifying Police Units," or UPPs, visit slums to rebuild strained community relations. All officers, for example, must participate in some form of community service.

Amid a rising national homicide rate, local officials in Santa Tecla, El Salvador, a town outside the capital, placed a new emphasis on prevention – a move that has contributed to a drop in the murder rate there, experts say. And in Chile, after years of military repression, police have been rebuilding faith by creating a community liaison to attend to neighborhood problems. "They have established their reputation as a force in support of law and order," says Mr. Tulchin, whose group collaborated with Chile to promote the concept of community-police relations.

Image boosting is an uphill battle in Mexico. The national statistics office INEGI recently released its 2011 survey on security showing that 92 percent of Mexicans don't report crime. An estimated 21 million incidents go unreported each year.

To assuage the problem, Mexico City police, who in 2003 consulted with former New York City Mayor Ru­dolph Guliani on police reform, have improved response time. They divided the sprawling metropolis – once marked in quadrants of up to 10 square miles, with emergency response times surpassing 30 minutes – into 918 quadrants, each smaller than one square mile. Since implementing the program in June, response times are as fast as three to five minutes, police say.

And long accustomed to patrolling and not interacting with locals, officers are now being trained in interpersonal skills.

Officer Alejandro Arellano is in charge of Mexico City's busy Zona Rosa, a neighborhood packed with cafes and nightclubs. He has introduced himself to local business owners, and he now fields emergency calls directly using a cellphone pocketed in his vest. "The police have changed a lot in recent years," he says. "It's not the same as before. Now we have to provide a different image to people."

Pedro Ibarra Díaz Trujillo, head of analysis for the Mexico City police, says that confidence will grow as familiarity does. “The fact that people know the person in charge of their security allows them to have more confidence in the authority,” he says. “We are evolving the police model,” Mr. Ibarra says.

Obstacles to police reform

But the evolution here and across the region is held up by many factors. Police are often hampered by flawed justice systems. "One of the bigger excuses police give for not doing more or working with the population is: 'We are tired of risking our lives arresting someone and seeing them on the street the next day,' " says Adam Isacson, a security expert at the Washington Office on Latin America.

The scope of the problem is huge, too. While Brazil's UPP program is the largest, even it consists of less than two dozen battalions; there are some 1,000 favelas across Rio de Janeiro.

And years of distrust means that small gains can be undone when a conflict arises. Gustavo Fondevila, a public security expert with the Mexico City-based research institute CIDE, notes that the police have made periodic changes to boost their image, from creating special “citizen protection units” to distinguishing traffic cops with fluorescent yellow caps and vests, but the positive effects rarely last. "Just about any effort serves to improve the image of the police, but it works only for a time," he says. "Afterwards it declines again inexorably."

Even those willing to give police a chance hold long-held prejudices. As Lopez tapes up his flier, he says that he has rarely seen the helping hand of the police, but a hand seeking a bribe. “It’s rare that a policeman comes over to help you,” said Lopez. “They’re looking to cite you instead of helping.”

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