Latin Police Can Be Reformed
Colombia Did It
When Carlos Torres was freed in August from kidnappers who had held him and an Italian businessman for four months, the young man from Bogot said:
"I was always hopeful we'd be rescued, because I have confidence in the police."
Confidence in the police?
Those are not words one frequently hears anywhere in Latin America, where the police are often better known - and feared - for corruption, intimidation, and violent crimes of their own, including kidnappings and killings.
But in Colombia a National Police that until a few years ago failed all measures of public trust is regaining its long-lost esteem.
The result, according to both average Colombians and the police themselves, is proof that bad police are not something that any Latin American country has to live with.
"Our neighbors in other [Latin] countries should never say they have to live with the police the way they are, because we've proven there can be a change," says Omar Eduardo Rojas, a Bogot police captain and sociologist.
The transformation has come after a top-to-bottom housecleaning and reorganization that threw out bad cops, offered new ones better training and pay, and emphasized a return to community policing.
"It used to be that all the police did was demand money from you to line their pockets," says Jos Ramn Blanco, a longtime Bogot taxi driver.
"Now if you even try to offer money to get out of something you are the one in trouble, that's how much things have changed."
Police reform efforts are under way in other Latin American countries as well.
Mexico City is experimenting with bicycle-mounted police.
Venezuela recently turned some of its antidrug police, considered the most efficient in the country, into local police.
Everywhere "community participation" is the buzzword of reform. With most countries in the region practicing broader forms of democracy, citizen involvement in police affairs is taking hold.
But Colombia's reform stands out - perhaps because of how far the police have come. Colombia's police were among the worst in the region into the early 1990s, analysts and police agree.
"For the public," says Captain Rojas, "policeman equaled delinquent."
At the same time, frequent terrorist acts left the police wary of and increasingly distant from the public. Neighborhood beats were systematically replaced with police cruisers.
The big change in Colombia started with the naming of Gen. Rosso Jos Serrano as director of the National Police in December 1994. He was fresh from the success of dismantling Colombia's Medelln drug cartel as head of the country's antinarcotics police, and demanded and received from Congress special powers to carry out police reform.
Until then a policeman could be fired only with a presidential order. In his first year, General Serrano fired almost 10 percent of some 100,000 officers. He opened up a hotline for the public to denounce bad cops. That was the beginning of what has become a reform built on public involvement.
"Before, the public simply didn't want anything to do with the police, but now the clamor is for a police that is present in their neighborhood, on their street, and taking an active part in solving people's daily problems," says Gloria Nio Carlos, a National Police major helping the Bogot Metropolitan Police set up a new community police corps.
"We take that as a measure of our progress."
A traditionally vertical organization was made more "horizontal" to give local police authorities more accountability to their public, and police started keeping "productivity charts" of how they were doing at reducing key crimes.
But the police hierarchy also studied police departments in the United States, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands - even neighboring Chile's respected traffic police were consulted for tips.
"What we learned from looking outside is that we had to have a clear mission, and that a police reform can't be carried out in a vacuum," says Rojas.
"We had to involve the community that is our reason for being."
Colombia settled on a community police force in a suburb of Barcelona, Spain, as its model. Although a list of crime-stopper and other community-based police programs have been set up, Colombia will get its first community police brigade in October when Bogot sends 600 newly trained police officers to walk neighborhood streets.
A city of more than 6 million people, Bogot will have a walking or bike-riding police team in each of its 19 districts, with the community police assigned to the 30 percent of the district that is most problematic.
"This is a complete change in policing style," says Major Nio. "The goal is to improve the quality of life of the city's neighborhoods with foot-patrol police as one important element."
Leonardo Arias Castaa and Alexander Martnez are two of the new police who will become an integral part of their assigned neighborhoods beginning next month.
"I'm looking forward to establishing a dialogue and letting people know we're there to help them solve their problems," says Mr. Arias, who says he was never satisfied with his two years as a patrolman in a cruiser.
"We want to erase this bad image of the police as corrupt, militaristic, and distant," adds Mr. Martnez, a seven-year police veteran.
"For me, I'll know I've done my job when people don't call me 'officer' anymore but just Alex."