Thursday, June 17, 2010

What Improving the Police Requires, beyond Its Unification

Ernesto López Portillo has a smart take on the unified police plan:
The principal problem in all police agencies in the democratic world is to balance power and control, so as to make them function to the benefit of citizens and their fundamental rights. When the police doesn't manage to enforce the law to the benefit of the citizens, it fails. The balance between power and control is the recipe for success. The first surprise is that there are fragmented and unified models around the world where said balance has been reasonably well achieved. The best example of the fragmented model is the US, with approximately 17,000 police agencies. It has problems with the balance, as everyone does, but they have gone about resolving them reasonably well. On the other extreme lies Guatemala, with a unified model that finds itself in extreme conditions of institutional weakness, violence, and corruption. About Colombia and Spain it is said that they are unified models, when in reality they are municipal police powers there. France demonstrates the effectiveness of having two police agencies with national coverage, which support and control each other in a reciprocal manner. In reality, no police model is better in and of itself, everything is in the professional quality of its functioning.


New tasks, uniforms, units of intervention, patrol cars, academies, technology, weapons, et cetera, all of this is the correct path if and only if the practices of the police change on the street, which refers us back to the eye of the hurricane: guaranteeing operational supervision.
He closes the piece by saying that reorganization is easy, reform not so much. This difference is the key to whether or not this plan improves police capacity in Mexico. It could be a convenient lever with which to exercise greater control, but the problem isn't of itself the lack of levers of control, but rather their ineffectiveness or disuse. Substituting 32 police agencies for several thousand will likely reduce the bureaucratic distance from the presumably honest and competent top cops and those doing police work at the most basic level, and it will make those levers of control more obvious, but it doesn't mean that control from the honest top to the less honest bottom will be more frequently or more effectively exercised. (And that's assuming that the people at the top are basically honest, an assumption many do not share.) Nor does it mean that police will be better paid, better trained, and instilled with a better sense of esprit de corps. A unified police doesn't mean that the next cop who pulls me over won't ask for "soda money". Which is to say, a unified police command might make it easier to improve the police, but it alone is not an improvement.

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