In May 2013 police in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua set out to systematically implement Community Policing in select municipalities across these four countries with the support of a regional program implemented by the GIZ, Preventing Youth Violence in Central America” (PREVENIR), as well as SICA, and the Governments of Germany, Holland, and Australia. The results of the implementation were outlined and analyzed in a recently published report (http://ow.ly/xMKsX) which details the experiences of each country, as well as the feasibility of adopting this model throughout other areas in the region.
As the report noted, the notion of Community Policing is not new to Central America. In fact, Community Policing in Latin America has multiplied since the 1990s – unfortunately, many of these initiatives have been short-lived. The model has typically been implemented in the form of pilot projects, or short-terms initiatives abandoned due to political reasons or a lack of resources (or both), often in favor of repressive and reactive police tactics. These tactics have been adopted despite frequent examples of them having adverse, or at best – no impact, in terms of decreasing or preventing crime. This has been the case with Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador where costly tough-on-crime “Man Dura” or “iron fist” policies have been implemented in an unsuccessful attempt to address the epidemic of urban violence that has spread across the Northern Triangle.
In contrast to traditional tactics, Community Policing – at its core – is based on the understanding of police as a proactive and preventative public entity that works in coordination with citizens with the mutual objective of protecting the community. Off course, definitions vary locally as a result of the unique history and context in which each model evolved but there are elements, as concluded in this report that can be adapted to the local realities and possibilities in order to for the region to benefit from the benefits associated with Community Policing.
For example, in El Salvador a decrease in the distrust that existed among police officers, and between police officers and citizens, including youth, was reported. In turn, the trust generated was said to have transformed communities into strategic allies that assisted police in the identification of risks and the development of solutions to problems. Nicaragua reported similar benefits.
In Guatemala Community Policing was particularly praised for its success in changing the attitudes and behaviors of children and youth, as officers became more engaged in schools. Likewise, relationships between the community and police were built and strengthened in Honduras and Nicaragua; it was reported that in one case that community members provided materials and services to the Community Police, recognizing the limited budget in which they had to operate and the importance of the service they provided. In Honduras, moreover, the report noted a reduction in the level of violence and criminal activity, as community members worked with police to inform them of the threats and risks in their neighborhoods.
I realize, these are only a few examples of what can be accomplished in a short-period of time. However, these examples coupled with the analysis of the regions capacity to adopt this model, the lessons learned in each country, the challenges that remain, and a reflection of the process, depict a clear message: Community Policing is not only feasible, but it is essential to the prevention of crime and the protection of our citizens.
Indeed, this report is an important step set-forth in ensuring sustainable alternatives to the traditional (an often unsuccessful) tactics that are typically employed in response to violence and crime that affect our communities.