[Thoughts] Police Reform in Chile

Longer article with some ideas about police reform. It speaks about defunding and disarming the police, crowd control and, use of excessive force. It lays out an alternative approximation to a problem that seems to be hostage to ready made rhetorics. Pick up a coffee and enjoy.

For the longest while I've been thinking about police reform in the light of what is going on in Chile, my country, and three common rhetorics that have been found across countries with social upheavals in the past year or so.

On the one side, we have the more conservative, right-wing if you will, that calls for 'law and order' and use of force (to the extremes of me having actually heard people say that protestors and looters should be dealt with el paredón a.k.a. firing squad). These people are also completely oblivious to the realities of marginalized communities and neighborhoods – they are blinded by their own realities, which they use as benchmark.

And, on the other, people on the left, incited by what some characterize as anarchist, who use the slogan ACAB ('All Cops Are Bastards') who make an apology of violence against the police ('the first line defenders') and equate awful societal conditions to physical violence. These people have been seen to call to defund the police and are completely desensitised to the consequences of their violent behavior.

In between, there's a bunch of well intentioned citizens who tend to sway one way or another depending on the news, their experiences and the opinion of their closest circles. I would add academics and other politicians to this mix by the mere common ground of the fact that they will “condemn violence across the board” and also “defend the right to protest” as republican values.

In short, all of these rhetorics are expressions of a main underlying problem. A problem which in its own way undermines the possibilities of a State that owns the monopoly of legitimate violence (as opposed to narcos, organized crime, violent groups, etc.) and that there's value in having a strong, respected police organization fiercely controlled by civilian powers (congress, citizens, justice departments).

As Vitale mentions in his book 'The End of Policing', police reform, which is without a doubt needed at this point, 'must address the use of excessive force, overpricing and disrespect to the public'. I would add a couple of things that Vitale dismisses as being more accessory but that I believe in the case of Chile need to be urgently tackled: (1) the impartial application or treatment in front of the law and; (2) civilian accountability at the highest and most organic levels. More training, diversifying the police (or its force) and community policing have proven to be absolute failures at addressing the key problems outlined above. We need to find leadership that solves a problem that can only be characterized as: “The problem of policing is policing itself”.

A big part of that problem, is that we build police corps doctrine (maybe even informally) around the mentality that are out there to protect themselves and 'fight the protestors'. This mentality is exacerbated by the fact that Special Forces Units (GOPE) – who were originally designed to deal with hostage situations, barricaded subjects, etc. – are deployed to do crowd control. Institutionally and politically, the government has validated this idea of 'us versus them' by naming special forces in La Araucania region, 'Jungle Commando' (Comando Jungla) as if they were in Vietnam and they had to deal with the Viet Cong in a declared war. Instead of this belligerent approach, we need Carabineros to go back to the doctrine that made it the most trustworthy institution for over a decade: un amigo siempre (“a friend, always”). The rhetoric used in 2018 'más cerca de ti' ('closer to you') seems farfetched and empty when policy brutality is on the rise but, mostly, it removes the original friend which was the expected behavior of a policeman: someone who is out there to serve the citizens of the republic and not 'to fight' or 'go to war against powerful enemies' (as the President uttered during the social uprising of late 2019). For as long as the government insists on pushing the police to become more brutal, because of their fear of losing the support of the extreme-right, the problem with policing in Chile will persist. Because, this is not 'a few rotten apples' problem, this is doctrine, symbolism and aesthetics. All of those things matter when people who are supposed to be at the service of their citizens suddenly become their enemies, creating societal fractures and the potential loss of the monopoly of violence to third-parties who, in turn, benefit from making the conflict worse.

Police reform is futile without transparency, openness and appropriate data. For example, in the US researchers have had to rely on renowned news outlets to get statistics to understand variance in police violence. These numbers, provided by the police themselves and audited by third-parties (independent journalists and NGOs or even the public ministry) would help gauge how dire the situation really is and it would allow for further civilian control of the police. Police should stop being secretive and a black-box in terms of the punishments they give people that fall out of rank. Structural oversight of the police – instead of having the police audit the police – is also required to stop mishandling of public funds, ensure correct prioritization of budgets and investments and overall health of doctrine and measures of success.

So, what about defunding the police? While this might be a real problem in places like the US where there's access to billions of dollars in funds to buy spillover military-grade material from the DoD, we might argue that this is a good idea. In countries like Chile, where the police needs to cover vast portions of territory without necessarily being properly equipped the problems have more to do with: (1) budgeting, investments and priorities and; (2) not defunding the police but rather 'disarming the police' (Smithsimon: 2015) – making sure that low impact situations like traffic control becomes less deadly because less weapons circulating means less possible escalations.

On point one, we need to avoid situations where, for example, the police increasingly invests money in sophisticated crowd control equipment (new armored water spitting trucks) instead of revising the strategies and doctrines or even supplying folks in remote areas. In other words, not all problems are big city problems. On point two, you might be wondering whether disarming the police would render them less effective? Maybe yes but we are weighing the cost of some criminals escaping application of the law for preserving the officers and by-passers' lives and, an enhanced police image that would probably mean long term reduction in crime rates. In other words, having police carry weapons all the time is always carrying a jackhammer as a carpenter.

I believe that one of the key points made by Vitale is that we need to re-think the role of the police. We might be asking a lot out of a single entity: intelligence, border crowd and traffic control, etc. We need to start thinking outside this idea of the police being part of a flawed punishment and mass criminalization system. SENAME and detention centers unfairly hold low-income people and offer almost zero chance of rehabilitation. Police corps are also tired of having to go and get the same people over and over again. Who does think that catching the same criminal 30 times is a good use of police's time? But it might also be time to make sure that the 'Prussian constabulary' background of the police is actually defused.

Most of all, police issues are sometimes expressions of bigger, more structural issues. The fact that we live under rampant inequality both in access to (public) goods, (public) services and urban planning definitely doesn't help the situation. In fact, homelessness, inadequate access to education (or even the school to jail/SENAME pipelines), lack of strong local communities (centers, activities, etc.) and others are clear areas where strong investments are required. Police alone will never fix juvenile violence, gangs or even looting acts in protest context without strong State investment and commitment. This is what most of the people call 'systemic violence' – being forgotten by a State that has precarious means to actually provide the necessary public goods and services. However, violently attacking the police and undermining their legitimacy might even play against their own wellbeing – further opening spaces for other uses of force to be the norm. I'm thinking about not only gangs, drug cartels and organized crime, but also social justice which seems to be more and more common. In fact, police reform is a small but critical component of a bigger plan. This key piece will have to ensure unbiased action, strong community ties, presence in forgotten places and servant, exemplar behavior for their fellow citizens.

One last point that I would love to tackle is this idea that we should continue to give more power to municipal inspectors in lieu of the Police. This is problematic. First of all, not all municipalities are funded equally – this might create a scenario where we institutionalize inequality even further (yes, ironically there's less Police in low-income areas than in high income ones). Second, there are several complications from the perspective of collaboration and jurisdictions. How do this bodies share intelligence or investigative proof? Third, ensuring accountability across several bodies might be a double edged sword. While being closer to the communities might make citizen control easier, it might also make State and Congress control harder. This is without even considering that municipalities have been regarded as the most corrupt layer of government across the board.

I personally have had enough of these discourses and acts devoid of any substance. It's time that we start really thinking and leading by debating ideas and positions openly and by having empathy. This is a problem of the Republic and it touches the citizens the government and political parties. As such, it needs to be treated seriously and with the outmost care. Long term public policies and funds need to be allocated to tackle this problem from different angles. The current constitutional process might be one foundational step to rethink the organic and prerogatives of the Carabineros and other forces of order. However, it will fall short if we're not able to find a common goal of ensuring equitable opportunities and developing these forgotten communities.

I, of course, accept that my view is partial and flawed but I absolutely believe that as a citizen of the Republic there's more that should be done. We need to, at least, try to apply political political solutions to political problems instead of falling pray to populist measures that live in the realm of mere declarations.

See all of you in another adventure,