#Police that we Deserve: A Discussion for the Future

This is a blog that is perhaps even more relevant today. I have been the Secretary for Multidimensional Security of the Organization of American States (OAS) since 2010, what follows are some personal reflections that I hope will add to the broader discussion of Police Management in the Americas. I am always careful to point out that I have never served in the police services, but I am grateful for the opportunity to have met so many of the real heroes, who work each and every day at personal risk to keep us safe.

In the Americas, not all countries have armed forces nor do they necessarily have the same legal systems or security structures. What they do have in common are police; from the most populous, the US, to the least, Saint Kitts and Nevis (CIA, 2014). Despite improvements in the expansion of democratic principles and relatively broad-based economic advances, according to Latinobarómetro, (in) security is still the issue that most concerns citizens of the Americas (2010, p. 15). Unfortunately, in most cases, crime and violence statistics back this up and not surprisingly the public perception of the “police” is relatively low when compared to other government services. In 2009 65% of Latin Americans had “little or no trust” in the police (OAS/UNDP, 2011, p.87). This is one reason why we have seen a relative explosion in the growth of often unregulated private security services.

In our recently completed report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, the experts, among other things, developed a chapter on drugs and crime and looked at various scenarios for the future. These scenarios outlined possible new approaches to the drug problem approaches that complement the issue of policing as well. A few points stand out from this report: 1) the drug problem affects all countries but differently, requiring differentiated policies and strategies, 2) by pursuing different pathways or strategies towards drugs, or crime, in general, countries can reduce harm in their communities and the burden on police (‘Pathways’ Scenario), 3) individuals and communities are an integral part of effective institutions (‘Resilience’ Scenario) and lastly 4) the rule of law institutions that need to develop a response to these problems are weak and need to be reformed (‘Together’ Scenario). In my view what we are really getting at here is the causal relationships of crime and violence; social vulnerabilities plus state or institutional fragility plus accelerants like drugs and gangs.

When I was growing up, in all of the police shows on TV the police cars were black and white – perhaps appropriate for a black and white world. This is no longer the case, in this hyper-connected, complex and globalized world we live in. Unfortunately, in many cases the response to these high levels of insecurity and ever evolving security challenge has been a return to reactive policing, implementing authoritarian and tough on crime policies and sentences. As we did with the OAS Drug Report we have to ask if this is really effective.

The purpose of this paper is to further the discussion on a “smart security” model and the role and impact of the police. Obviously, the police are only one part of the broader infrastructure required in the highly complex environment in which we live. Unfortunately, the police often pay the brunt of our (in) security frustration and they are often maligned as being incompetent, corrupt or both. In my travels, I have often seen valiant efforts by poorly paid police officers who are the front line of the state response with very little systemic support. Hopefully, this paper will help in developing a serious and informed discussion on how to move forward in an integrated manner.

The context of this paper and the challenges police forces are facing today are captured in the relatively new security approach implicit in the Declaration on Security in the Americas of 2003, the expansion of democracy through the continent, the various conclusions and recommendations presented at the Meetings of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas (MISPA) and other bodies of the OAS, as well as the results of empirical studies and documented diagnostics related to police service. Suggestions were also taken from various parts of the report, The Drug Problem in the Americas, which emphasized, the need for a shift from trying to control crime to preventing crime, discussing new approaches that alleviate and focus police forces, and strengthening the involvement of communities and individuals in battling crime and insecurity.

The point of departure is to assert that a properly functioning police service is without doubt part of the State’s responsibility to protect its citizens, through proactive and effective responses to public security issues. That being said, many jurisdictions lack or fall short of this objective leading to the perception of fragility. In order to become an effective state institution and fulfill these responsibilities, the police need to become a legitimate institution in the eyes of the public.

The following framework briefly describes the basis of what a police model could look like building on our concept of “smart security”. “Smart security” simply suggests the following ingredients: 1) a multidimensional/integrated approach to security, 2) objective evidenced based diagnoses, 3) policies based on national and regional needs and capacities, 4) incorporating existing best practices and 5) an evaluation of outcomes.

  1. Balancing the Focus: From Reaction to Prevention

A change in policing must first begin with a change in the philosophical and procedural approaches of a society and its police. The purpose of the police is to ensure coexistence and public order. This should support a more balanced approach from reactive or repressive policing of crime to a greater focus on crime prevention and the causes of the crime. According to our own Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, prevention is defined as a “preparation against uncertain future damages,” decreasing their likelihood and effect (CIDH, 2009, p. 73). A preventative approach, therefore decreases risk as it mitigates and neutralizes “destruction that has not yet occurred but is imminent” (CIDH, 2009, p. 48). One such method of prevention is deterrence, whereby the increased presence of police in an area often deters criminal acts from being carried out in the first place (Groff, Johnson, Ratcliffe and Wood, 2013, p. 6). Although demands by society and in turn  governments often make such theoretical shifts difficult, preventative enforcement approaches that deter and discourage crime should become a priority.

This theoretical shift also requires a shift in how we perceive crime and the effectiveness of our strategies to combat it. All too often we rely on certain indicators, such as the aggregate number of arrests made, police on the street or the amount of drugs seized, to assess crime fighting and the definition of success. Again these indicators encourage a focus on reaction rather than prevention. Indicators need to shift towards those that measure not what happened but what did not happen due to effective police work, an idea not easy to understand at either the political or public level. Crime rates are also deceptive, for as we strive for a more trusted police the more confidence citizens have in them and this invariably leads to more crime being reported. This relationship must, therefore be understood by all key stakeholders; police, citizen groups, and politicians to ensure informed decision making.

More obvious and publicly accepted incentives do exist for a change towards crime prevention strategies and indicators. Not only have repressive police responses proved ineffective in curbing insecurity and improving public safety they are increasingly more expensive than prevention policies (ICPC/UNODC, 2011, p. 20). Prevention is a proven cost-effective approach to crime and violence as it reduces both justice system costs, in terms of policing, court systems and prisons, as well as the economic and social costs of crime. Such examples of these include the loss of productivity and increased reliance on welfare systems by families, resulting from the incarceration of primary wage earners (UNODC, 2010, p. 20). A concrete example of the cost benefits of a prevention approach is present in reintegration programs, which not only decrease re-offending rates but are far less costly than supporting an inmate (UNODC, 2010, p. 99). It has become an unfortunate trend for countries facing high rates of crime to resort to repressive and reactive policing. Highlighting the political and economic benefits and incentives for prevention policies and policing can hopefully alter this trend.

Such a shift to a preventative approach of policing, and the indicators we use to assess it, would be transformational in encouraging police services to act before, as opposed to the institutionalized after. Supported by such strong incentives a move from reactionary to preventative policing seems obvious and necessary.

  1. Police Development Responding to Democratic and Institutional Order

It is essential that the evolution and development of police forces are aligned with democratic and institutional civil order. This must occur at a domestic level but also an international one, as police must observe the provisions of international law, in particular, with regard to human rights. As the process of deepening democracy continues in many states, a parallel process in the functioning and modernization of the police force must also be present. While citizens and governments strive for protection and security from crime and violence, they are also seeking protection of a way of life; democracy, rights, freedoms, and privacy.

The strengthening of police and prosecution services and the judiciary promotes more effective work and increased cooperation. This in turn, leads to other benefits such as the promotion of legitimacy and civilian trust in law enforcement, which is of particular importance where insecurity perceptions go hand in hand with distrust of police forces. Better policing and in turn a more respected police force improves overall governance legitimacy and contributes to a country’s successful democratic deepening.

  1. Public Policy: Inclusive and Participatory

In order for successful changes in police systems, there needs to be changes in policy formulation. State authorities need to understand local realities and police structures so as to effectively construct policy and strategies concerning public safety, in regards to crime prevention. A more integrated approach in criminal policy formation should produce reforms in the justice sector that generate positive outcomes felt from prison systems to street patrols. It is also essential to integrate with other government policy guidelines so that new policing policy is coherent with national public safety and criminal justice policy.

The formulation of public policy related to policing action requires strategic planning to comprehensively address the issues and events that generate violence and insecurity. Simultaneously, it should include actions that help to strengthen the social relations of police and the protection of individual and collective human rights. It must also include conflict and crime resolution components that respect the rights of victims and the accused, based on the rule of law.

Police are only one part of the continuum in dealing with crime and violence. We cannot expect police to be social workers and teachers, although they need their support. Diversion programs need some bite, especially in the juvenile demographic; police, teachers and social workers aligning efforts can reduce harm and long-term costs. Therefore, multiple stakeholders need to be involved in the process of shaping policy on public safety, particularly local governments and the general public. Preventing violence and crime is a mutual responsibility, which demands a comprehensive approach to the situation at local levels.

Priority setting by the police, to achieve an acceptable outcome in crime reduction, needs to involve the community and government. The ‘Balanced Scorecard’ used by many contemporary police forces requires police managers at all levels (local commander, regional commander, Commissioner) to work with their respective community leaders to identify what the risks are and how the police will achieve a measurable outcome, over the next year, in reducing those risks. They are therefore accountable to their communities to make a difference. The local commander works with their community to reduce the risk of local crime, such as thefts or assaults, through local programs and reports back to their communities at the end of the period on their progress. At the Executive level, the Commissioner sets priorities with the government, such as reducing the threat of terrorism by creating programs and ensuring the police force implements local programming in support of the national initiative.

Effective follow-up requires a robust audit program to ensure all levels have do-able goals. The audit program ensures everyone knows that this type of programming requires accountability at all levels. Holding police accountable for implementing programs and their follow-up is key to achieving acceptable outcomes. Community involvement in setting enforcement priorities results in the communities buy-in to their own security as well and makes it difficult to point the blame at the police for not doing anything. At the same time, it allows the police to identify their own shortcomings, such as training or resources, to the government which leads to greater professionalization of the police.

  1. Modernization, Development and Police Professionalization

There is an indispensable need for multiple and continuous forms of police modernization. Police management needs to incorporate good governance policies and practices from the private sector, academia, and civil society; like certification to improve transparency and accountability to academic standards for learning. It needs to be open to civil authorities and civilians in order to ensure maximum efficiency, effectiveness and weed out police corruption.

At the same time, qualitative advances are required in the professionalization of the police services. In order to be effective, police need to be respected and trusted in their communities, consequently,they must respect themselves. This means improvements in the pay, living and working conditions of the police as they become agents of progress and change in their communities. The development of educational models based on technological diversification is also required to remain current with information and communication technologies. One of the biggest challenges to police education and areas of needed development is the lack of a consolidated accreditation system of police performance and evaluation. Police officers, and particularly, new graduates need to be continually assessed in line with standardized systems. Such evaluation systems also need to be aligned with the pedagogy to ensure their continued efficiency and effectiveness. The OAS has given us a mandate to create, as one of the pillars of our MISPA process, the Inter-American Network of Police Management, to help bridge this gap by using existing expertise in our countries university systems. This could be supported by an OAS working group to develop the process and methodology to create our own ISO 9000 standards (García, 2011).

We are not naive; there will always be crime and criminals using innovative and sophisticated means to commit crimes. A new approach, such as Community Policing (to be further addressed in point 8), while successful in gathering new intelligence and preventing and reducing some crime will not be able to disrupt Transnational Organized Crime. To effectively fight and prevent complex crime we will also require highly trained and specialized police units. The notion that we will never completely eradicate all forms of crime should not discourage us from striving for a more integrated and effective police force actively preventing and disrupting crime with the minimum of harm.

  1. An Integrated and Globalized Police

In order to effectively respond to the globalization of crime (some of it organized) it is essential to fully engage existing regional and sub-regional police cooperation and confidence building mechanisms. Europe is a successful model through the development of Europol which builds common standards across the countries of the European Union while complementing global efforts like Interpol. Expanding the institutionalization of the American Police Community (AMERIPOL) is the logical next step as the vehicle for technical coordination, integration and reduction of police asymmetries in our region (García and Jara, 2014). Some progress has already been made, particularly in the sharing of specialized forensic evidence, but this expansion must continue, specifically towards a unified system of criminal data and statistics, and standardized victimization surveys.

Building trust is a force multiplier; it is also a dynamic process, domestically within and across institutions and internationally with the global community. The benefits of mutual technical assistance between police institutions in Member States are vast and in need of continued expansion. The sharing of successful experiences, good practices as well as empirical knowledge and analytical processes are an important form of integration which can lead to more proactive and effective policing throughout the region.

  1. Police Priorities Oriented and Supported by Evidence and Intelligence

Police intelligence is a scientific discipline that is invaluable to good policing as it predicts perceived threats of social conflict and advises police accordingly (Cortes and Parra, 2013, p. 176). Effective police intelligence corresponds with a prevention-focused policing as it aids in predicting and analyzing crime and its root causes. Criminal and police intelligence is indispensable for understanding the risks affecting public safety and the generation of knowledge (García, 2011); both of which affect decisions leading to active prevention and the planning of local and regional police policies on public safety.

For police to effectively prevent crime and violence they must focus on hot spots of such activity. Intelligence, therefore plays a major role as it serves to educate police on the indicators of violence, where it is most prevalent, and why it affects certain areas over others. By actively targeting hot spots police can hope to not only adequately deal with the prevalent crime in those areas but also prevent the spread of crime from them. An example is the successful dismantling of gang cliques in certain neighborhoods, which allows for greater opportunities to implement prevention-oriented strategies. This highlights a need for geo-referenced criminal data and intelligence. In countries who already possess such strategic and specific criminal intelligence departments, this knowledge must be appropriately shared with the police force and its purpose must not only be directed towards crime solving but also crime prevention frameworks. This intelligence then allows for the creation and implementation of educated and case-specific strategies for dealing with crime and preventing its spread.

  1. Police Approaches and Objectives: National Standards, Local Initiatives

While it is obviously a sovereign decision for each country, I believe that the risks are so great that we are better served by developing strong national standards of policing to avoid fragility, develop interoperability and ensure effective use of resources. This does not mean that regional and municipal models cannot be built from this platform, as it is true that public security contexts vary drastically between countries as well as within them. For this reason, police require national standards while simultaneously facilitating the development and use of local experiences, knowledge and know-how to fight crime at a local level. Controlled levels of operational independence from nationally identified policies on public safety will help in local police preventing crime while adhering to national standards and doctrine. Without this, there occurs a disparity between the interests of the national government and actual local responses. To solve this problem, operational demands should begin local but align with national standards, so indicators that address the realities and capabilities in the area are not just for political purposes and are not controlled by national insecurity perceptions.

A policing policy should be based on what we call “smart security” and the objective diagnosis of public problems and risks to public safety in specific areas. A multidimensional approach, with the participation of multiple stakeholders from the local area, is therefore, essential. This would allow for the development of specialized integrated administrative units for public safety, consisting of local government, police, and citizens. That being said, it is essential that a fine balance between national standards and local initiatives is maintained to avoid the waste of resources and discrepancies in data collection and practices between regional police forces. This can only be accomplished through the establishment of a developed and well-integrated management structure.

  1. Citizen-Centered Police

The achievement of public safety lies in the hands of not only police but also in the roles of citizens and communities. There are social obligations and commitments to security so citizens and communities share some responsibility for their own security. Consequently, police forces need to strengthen their link with both individuals of the public and organized and representative sectors of society. The creation of powerful links between families, communities, local businesses and organizations and their police force can help mitigate some of the social vulnerabilities and aid in the development of resilient communities.

There are two principle approaches to Community Policing: preventative and proactive.  Preventative measures include such programs as increased patrols within a community, more police officers on the streets and greater police/citizen interaction. Proactive measures include joint priority settings between the police and community leaders through an effective intelligence program, the establishment of achievable programs, and proper assessment and reporting. The introduction of a decentralized model of policing, such as Community Policing, would allow for a flexible way to create, strengthen and maintain these positive relationships. Community Policing offers other benefits as well, as police forces that are participatory and integrated in the social construction of public security in a specific community make an effort towards ensuring that communities protection.

Effective Community Policing approaches ensure:

  1. A certain amount of crime reduction
  2. Reduction in the perception of insecurity
  3. Improvement in the public’s image of police and thereby police legitimacy, and a
  4. Decreased likelihood of police abuse or unnecessary use of force

(Dammert, 2005, p. 61).

In regards to the last point, a study by Temple University found that the introduction of foot patrol officers created a more personal presence of police and meant that they interacted with the public “using a ‘non-adversarial’ approach” as opposed to previous, less intimate and community-based approaches which resulted in police taking on “adversarial” roles” (Groff, et al., 2013, p. 7). Citizens are therefore an important link to a police force’s success and reputation and Community Policing ensures a positive and strong link.

Community Policing and the building of relationships between police forces and citizens also encourages responsible sentencing and the appropriate use of police discretion when encountering minor or non-violent offenses. This must however, be treated as an extremely delicate issue due to prevalent perceptions of corruption and bribery within policing institutions in the Americas. Coinciding with this needed framework of police discretion is one of prosecutor discretion, particularly in regards to legal issues such as plea bargaining. With overcrowded prisons and backed up court systems in much of the Americas there is a need to balance the state response proportionately to the offense. Do we clog justice systems with minor non-violent offenses or, as is the case with drug treatment courts and other alternatives to incarceration, do we develop harm reduction strategies. Community police institutions offer a preferable alternative with their ability to not only use their own judgment concerning arrests but build relationships in communities. Harm reduction should not be seen as a slippery slope to impunity.

Overrun justice systems are also the result of other inefficient policies, such as pre-trial detention and the lack of alternatives to incarceration. This represents the need for a system-wide framework including not only the police but also representatives from the entire justice system, from courtrooms to prisons. As I said before police are but one component responsible for solving the issues surrounding high rates of crime and violence in the region.

It should also be noted that a new Community Policing approach should not come at the loss of already established or forthcoming police initiatives focused on the use and study of technical skills and the utilization of modern technology. While Community Policing may be viewed as a return to past, less technologically advanced policing it is rather a powerful combination of new technologically advanced police with local knowledge and relationships.

This horizontal and integrated approach of Community Policing aligns with the prevention shift highlighted earlier as police become more effective in preventing crime by learning from their communities. Working with community-based NGOs, church groups, other organizations and even first responders allows for intimate access into the structures and operations of communities.

I chose the title of this paper carefully. “The Police that we Deserve” is meant to put the discussion back into the hands of each and every one of us citizens.  If we want to live in safe and stable communities what are we willing to do to eliminate these fragilities that are so attractive to the criminal element? While we may grumble and complain, are we paying our fair share of taxes? Do we volunteer and participate in community management? Do we treat our neighbors as we would like to be treated, do we respect quality of life laws like traffic and trash? The point is that without common values and ethics and some common sense we are not going to be able to build the sustainable communities that we all aspire to live in.


These short reflections highlight some of the major changes and challenges in the development of a comprehensive policing model. The solutions to problems of insecurity and crime are not necessarily more security; such as police and heavy-handed anti-crime legislation; we know that we are not going to arrest our way out of the problem. Rather, we need better security, or “smart security,” to strategically shift police forces towards crime prevention and resolution focused approaches, not just in the sense of police policy and action but also in the ways we measure the success and effectiveness of police forces. Professional police services, with proper standards and structure, which are well recruited, well trained and certified, and remunerated commensurate to the risk and vocation, are far more likely to have a positive relationship with the community, be less corrupt and solve more crimes.

Police services must strive to be legitimate institutions with high levels of strategic planning, elevated standards of technical expertise and, above all, flexibility to address the transformations of social dynamics. Successful public security depends upon government support and police accountability. The police we deserve in Latin America are a response to the needs and expectations of citizens as well as the unanimous reflection of their states in times of transnational globalization, the emergence of new threats, refinement of criminal practices and widespread distrust.

Therefore, the alteration and development of current police institutions requires numerous integral objectives that are fundamental for the creation of effective police forces adept to the needs of the western hemisphere.

A summary of these objectives is outlined below:

  • Prioritizing preventative enforcement approaches that deter and discourage crime and violence
  • Creation and appropriation of a system founded on integrity, transparency and accountability.
  • Police developing in line with democratic deepening and the preservation of citizen rights
  • Formation of area-specific public policy related to and deriving from policing
  • Professionalization and modernization of policing institutions
  • Identification and implementation of an education system tailored to the needs and demands of police work
  • Improving the ability to measure, monitor and evaluate the performance of police services as a basis for learning and development
  • Developing on the creation of an integrated and globalized police force
  • Highlighting the continued importance of police and criminal intelligence
  • Improving the ability to understand the context and determinants of public safety at the local, national, regional and international level
  • Creating new relationships between citizens and government institutions, especially in the areas of law enforcement, criminal justice, and citizen security

Please send any comments, questions or suggestions to:


Adam Blackwell

Vice President International

Development Services Group 


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Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH). (2009). Informe sobre Seguridad Ciudadana. Retrieved on 19 September, 2014, from: http://www.unicef.org/honduras/Seguridad_ciudadana_DDHH.pdf

Cortes, V. y Parra, C. (2013). Aproximación a la base teórica de la Inteligencia Policial. Revista Criminalidad, Vol. 55 (2): 167-185.

Dammert, L. (2005). Reforma Policial en América Latina, en: Quorum, Revista de pensamiento Latinoamericano, num. 12, 2005, pp. 53-64, Universidad de Alcalá, España.

García Hernández, Lieutenant Coronel Luis Ernesto. (2012). Presentation: “Desafíos de la construcción de confianza desde la percepción y el trabajo conjunto con la policía.” First Congress of Police Transparency. Bogotá, Colombia.

García Hernández, Lieutenant Coronel Luis Ernesto. (2012). Presentation: “Inteligencia criminal: atrapando la ola.” Training Seminar IALEIA. San Diego, California.

García, L. Inteligencia policial para caracterizar fenómenos: un reto estratégico en seguridad ciudadana. Bogotá, Colombia, 2011.

García, L. and Jara, V. (2014). Necesidades de conocimiento policial para la Red Interamericana de Desarrollo y Profesionalización Policial. The Police Community of the Americas (AMERIPOL).

Groff, E., Johnson, L., Ratcliffe, J. and Wood, J. (2013). Exploring the relationship between foot and car patrol in violent crime areas. Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management, 36(1), 119-139. Retrieved January 1, 2013, from: http://www.temple.edu/cj/footpatrolproject/ documents/Officer_activity_final.pdf

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Organization of American States/United Nations Development Programme (OAS/UNDP). (2011). Our democracy in Latin America. Retrieved on 24 September 2014, from: http://www.thepanamanews.com/pn/v_17/issue_12/UNDP-OAS_Our_Democracy_in_Latin_America.pdf

The Scenario Team of the OAS. (2012). Scenarios for the Drug Problem in the Americas: 2013-2025. Washington, DC: OAS

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (2010). Handbook on the Crime Prevention Guidelines: Making them work. Retrieved on 6 October 2014, from: http://www.unodc.org/pdf/criminal_justice/Handbook_on_Crime_Prevention_Guidelines_-_Making_them_work.pdf

3 thoughts on “#Police that we Deserve: A Discussion for the Future

  1. “La policía que nos merecemos”, más que un desafío es una oportunidad de crecimiento y desarrollo policial en la Américas. Su contenido refleja que los cuerpos policiales deberán avanzar hacia el futuro en 5 campos fundamentales:

    1. Innovación
    2. Profesionalización
    3. Análisis y comprensión del contexto
    4. Investigación y desarrollo
    5. Capacidades de gestión organizacional

    Este documento es una referencia valiosa para desarrollar perspectivas de crecimiento e innovación policial. Gracias ADAM

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