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Public Security and Police Reform in the Americas

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How are security problems being addressed in the Americas? What lessons can be learned from these experiences? This book from the University of Pittsburgh Press examines public security and police reform in Brazil, Chile, Colombia, El Salvador, Mexico and the United States. Public perception of increased crime and violence has led to public security policies that emphasise punishment and symbolism, such as highly publicised national plans and the importation of unadapted ideas from abroad. Procedural safeguards are needed to monitor human and civil rights in the region as security forces are strengthened.

Many countries in the Americas saw a significant increase in crime and violence in both the mid-1980s and mid-1990s, and the issue of insecurity has risen to the top of the public agenda. Acting under public pressure with limited resources, elected officials are forced to improvise, experiment and treat the symptoms. Governments are focusing on strengthening the police, rather than adopting an integrated approach to public security. Furthermore, in many cases the public seems willing to sacrifice some civil-rights protection for greater security, which threatens to weaken government accountability.

The interconnected functions of common crime and justice administration include: crime prevention; investigation and prosecution; judicial action; sanction; and rehabilitation-reintegration. In the cases studied, prevention policies were not completely absent, but public demands for security led most frequently to increased activity in the middle phases (investigation, prosecution and sanction). Strategies often involved hiring more police personnel (and purging existing ranks), criminalising more activities and hardening penalties. As a result, the police, court and prison systems became overloaded, resources were diverted from prevention, and efforts in rehabilitation and reintegration were weakened. Further findings are that:

  • Coordinating multiple agencies (in terms of legal-constitutional, central-local and public-private dynamics, for example) is a constant challenge.
  • The public's fear of crime seems to be out of proportion to real trends, and lack of appropriate data is problematic. In Brazil, Chile and El Salvador misinformed fear of crime has led to support for hard-line anti-crime policies and has benefited anti-reform agendas.
  • Community policing may improve the public's perception of police efforts to prevent crime, but there is no strong evidence to suggest that it affects crime rates, reduces fear of crime or improves the administration of police forces.
  • Innovative thinking is lacking on military-police cooperation to improve public security in ways that protect civil rights.

Results from international assistance have been mixed, and suggest future risks. While United States involvement in Colombia, for example, has strengthened police effectiveness, the availability of US resources may distort the priorities of Latin American police and intelligence agencies. Political actors might use the US emphasis on terrorism to label groups they oppose as terrorists in order to enlist US support, undermining the protection of civil rights. Other implications include the following:

  • Ideas drawn from abroad need to be tailored to fit local circumstances.
  • Governments need to be able to produce credible, timely and accessible data on trends in crime and policing, which could help to counter inflammatory political rhetoric or media coverage.
  • Coordination mechanisms are needed to assign responsibilities among stakeholders and evaluate programmes.
  • Prevention is most effective when a supportive civic culture is already present.


Author: John Bailey (ed.) | Lucia Dammert (ed.)
Source: Bailey J. & Dammert L., (eds.), 2006, 'Public Security and Police Reform in the Americas', University of Pittsburgh
Size: 322 pages