How does Venezuela's police reform measure up?

Since 2009 the Chávez government has carried forward a comprehensive police reform, creating a national police unit and university in Venezuela.

 David Smilde is the moderator of WOLA's blog: Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights. Rebecca Hanson is a contributor. The views expressed are the authors's own.

Moderator’s note: Over the coming weeks WOLA will be running a series of posts examining the different elements of the Chávez government’s efforts at citizen security reform.

 Since 2009 the Chávez government has carried forward a comprehensive police reform that has created a new National Bolivarian Police (Policía Nacional Bolivariana, PNB), a new police university, and a new General Police Council (Consejo General de Policía, CGP) that oversees the reform’s implementation. 

A sustained look at the Venezuelan police system began in 2006, after a high-profile kidnapping case that involved both active and retired officers from the former Metropolitan Police and ended in the death of three boys from a wealthy Caraqueño family as well as their chauffeur. The Ministry of Justice responded to calls for the elimination of the Metropolitan Police—calls that were by no means new—by organizing The National Commission for Police Reform (CONAREPOL).

The commission consisted of representatives from federal, state, and municipal governments across the political spectrum; a number of Venezuelan universities; and multiple civil society groups. Their final report was based on an impressive collection of data including a national consultation with around 57,000 citizens, over 1,500 police officers and directors, and a review of the institutional structure and budgets of numerous municipal and state police forces. 

The CONAREPOL was killed in 2007 by newly named Minister of Interior and Justice Pedro Carreño as “right-wing” and its recommendations dismissed. However the effort at reform was revived in 2008 when Ramón Rodríguez Chacín replaced Mr. Carreño. Though not all of the commission’s recommendations were taken into account, the report produced by the commission informed the writing of both the 2008 Organic Law of the Police Service and of the National Police Body and the 2009 Statute of Police Functions (Ley del Estatuto de la Funcion Policial). The 2008 law created the National Police and was the first in Venezuelan history to provide uniform nationwide norms, rules, and regulations for police functions, services, control mechanisms, and supervision. 

The 2009 Statute created new instances of internal and external supervision of the police, which the CONAREPOL consultation had found to be severely lacking. While institutions like the Office of the Ombudsman (Defensoria del Pueblo) previously existed, the law created internal supervision bodies, such as the office of Supervision of Police Conduct (Oficinas de Control de Actuación Policial) and Response to Police Misconduct (Respuesta a las Desviaciones Policiales), which receive denunciations and implement strategies to prevent police misconduct. Police forces are now also required by law to give a public accounting (rendicion de cuentas) to communities within the first 60 days of each year and the PNB’s community police services are required to hold public accounting meetings at least three times a year.

The General Police Council, also created by the 2008 law and headed up by a mix of human rights activists and government and police representatives, is charged with implementing CONAREPOL’s recommendations and standardizing the ranks, uniforms, and training of all police forces in the country. In 2009 the CGP formally disbanded the Metropolitan Police, though it took until 2011 for them to be fully phased out. In 2009 the CGP created the National Police, which began pilot policing projects in metropolitan Caracas that year and has been expanding into new areas of the city for the past three years. The PNB currently has 14,478 officers and has spread to 8 states, with officers largely assigned to “prioritized” areas, or areas with high rates of crime. The CGP also raised and set uniform salaries for all police officers (salaries were doubled, with base pay moving from around $350 - $420 a month to around $745.) and standardized police ranks across municipal, state, and the (new) national police force. 

As part of its efforts, the CGP produced a uniform set of training guides for officers that are available to the public online and cover topics like community policing, patrols and surveillance, and police equipment. The Council has also organized a number of media campaigns encouraging citizens to denounce police corruption, like the “Keep an Eye on Your Police” (Métele el Ojo a Tu Policia) campaign that relied on newspaper and television ads as well as youtube videos to encourage denunciations. Finally, the CGP has pushed for the organization of citizen oversight committees that were legislated in the 2009 Statute of Police Functions and are intended to provide external supervision over the police (see below).

In 2011, the police reform advanced with the creation of the Citizen Police Oversight Committees (Comites Ciudadanos de Control Policial, CCCPs).  By the summer of 2012, 44 committees had been formed to monitor the PNB, while 22 committees monitored state police forces, and 21 oversaw municipal police forces.  By the end of last year elections had been held to form 25 more groups, which are currently undergoing their “process of formation” (workshops and presentations that teach committee members about the reform, police protocol, and their role) before they actually begin performing their oversight functions.

The goal of the CGP is to have a CCCP attached to each municipal and state police force as well as operating in each federal entity where the PNB is deployed. The CCCPs are meant to oversee police functions, operations, administration, and resources. In meetings, this has translated into committee members discussing police officers’ failure to comply with laws and procedures; how to ensure that patrols are being deployed in high crime areas (compared to the often sporadic nature of patrolling in the country as individual officers, left unsupervised, are often allowed to decide where and when to patrol); and how to improve officers’ access to adequate resources and equipment.

In our next post we will look at one of the key pillars of the police reform: the new police university.

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