A Look at Police Reform

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Jeanna Cullinan, a Ph.D. student at the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies of American University - and Tinker Field Research Grant recipient - reports on her study of police reform in Mexico.

The explosion in violence and drug-trafficking related crime in Mexico over the past decade has exposed some ugly truths about the nation’s public security institutions. Municipal and state police regularly lack sufficient resources and often rely on outdated equipment. Amongst the lowest paid public servants in the country, police departments experience exceptionally high turnover rates. Low salaries and lack of job security make police officers in Mexico particularly susceptible to corrupting influences. Widespread corruption and frequent cases of police participation in criminal enterprises - including extortion rackets, kidnapping, and murders - reinforce the woefully low levels of public trust and confidence resulting from regular citizen interactions with incompetent, unethical police officers.

In an environment of public distrust and increasing insecurity, Mexico has undertaken an ambitious agenda of police reform at the federal, state, and municipal levels. Mexico’s strategy includes plans to improve police education, professional training, wages and benefits; adopt a merit-based system for career advancement and implement a variety of anti-corruption mechanisms. When trust in law enforcement is high, “policing by consent” is possible: citizens voluntarily cooperate by reporting crimes, providing information and participating in crime prevention. In Mexico’s current low-trust environment, reforms within the institution of policing alone are unlikely to yield significant, long-term reductions in crime rates. 

Experimental practice and academic research suggest that policing strategies designed to increase citizen participation in public security can have significant, positive effects on levels of trust and satisfaction with police. Public participation and cooperation can be encouraged through implementation of community policing strategies, where neighborhood foot patrols facilitate familiarity and information-sharing with residents; through external accountability mechanisms, which provide social control for police through citizen, neighborhood and business associations; and through a procedural justice approach, which emphasizes the importance of the perceived fairness of police actions and treatment of citizens.

A grant from the Tinker Foundation provided me with the opportunity to conduct on-the-ground, exploratory research into the sub-national variation between police reform strategies in Mexico. I was interested in identifying cities that approached reform by focusing not only on institutional changes, but that included the rebuilding of trust and citizen participation in public security as part of their agenda. Out of more than 200 municipalities participating in a grant program linking federal funding to compliance with national guidelines for police reform, Monterrey, Guadalajara, and Tijuana emerged as possible sites for my case study. While each of these municipalities operates under the same federal mandate, local dynamics - politics, culture, economics, history - may influence municipal strategies of police reform and, as a result, could explain how outcomes might differ from one place to the next.

Monterrey, Mexico
Monterrey, Mexico (highlighted in red) within the country and state of Nuevo Leon

I arrived in Monterrey, a large, industrial city in the Mexican border state of Nuevo León, in the midst of a wave of violence.  On a previous visit just two years earlier, I observed a city with a vibrant public life and strong economy, with relatively little insecurity – especially in comparison to cities like Juárez at that time.  However, the intervening years had been tough for Monterrey.  In 2010 Hurricane Alex flooded the area with 30 inches of rain and washed away the city’s infrastructure.  Landslides and flooding caused extensive damage to public and private property, while entire neighborhoods in the city’s outlying, impoverished suburbs were subsumed by mud and chunks of uprooted cement. 

Since then, a brutal turf war between rival cartels had come to Monterrey and the insecurity resulting from daily gun battles and horrific murders exacerbated the hurricane’s physical damage to the city.  On this second trip in June 2011, most residents were abandoning the city by dusk, and only hálcones, often bearing the mark of the Zetas cartel - a ’Z’ shape shaved into their eyebrows - remained on the streets, guarding corners for their gang.

Although the city had recently begun a project to create a new police force - La Fuerza Civil - recruitment was slow and citizens had little confidence in the ability of a new force to protect and serve.  Recruiters offered much higher salaries to qualified officers that completed training and underwent confidence testing.  Membership in La Fuerza Civil would guarantee housing in “police neighborhoods,” secure, gated communities intended to prevent criminals from corrupting officers by making threats against family members.  The plan also called for streamlined, non-biased mechanisms for advancement within ranks, education and scholarship incentives, and access to private medical care for the officer’s family.  The program, according to a two-part interview with a Fuerza Civil spokesperson, trained officers in procedural and investigative techniques and was based upon a peacekeeping model (which uses community policing strategies) to train preventative police.

The Fuerza Civil project was also interesting because of participation from the private sector.  Monterrey is one of Mexico’s richest cities and an important industrial center.  The city’s business elite had recently partnered with Monterrey’s public security agency to encourage investment of private resources into public programs intended to help at-risk youth, encourage citizen denunciation of crime, and train business executives for public service.  This public-private partnership inspired my investigation of a new direction for my research into municipal police reform in Mexico.

Police cadets in Mexico City, credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia
Police cadets in Mexico City
Credit: Alejandro Linares Garcia

The time I spent in Tijuana yielded interesting observations on police reform as well.  A variety of civil society organizations joined forces to form Tijuana’s Citizen Coalition for Public Security (Coalición Ciudadana por la Seguridad Pública - CCSP) and has called upon the government to provide better job security, benefits and pay for local police.  The CCSP believes that citizens have a dual role in police reform: they must hold the government accountable for implementing and continuing internal reforms to policing institutions and they must hold the police accountable for their performance. 

By collaborating with security authorities, CCSP hopes to transform policing into a dignified and respectable career while increasing the institutional legitimacy of Tijuana’s police.  The CCSP also provides a platform to inform the public about improvements (and failures) resulting from police reform.  Using survey research methods to identify and address deficits in public trust, the coalition hopes to assist public officials restore legitimacy to and public confidence in Tijuana’s police.

My original plan of investigation involved carrying out in-depth field interviews with police officials to determine the type of police reform being implemented in possible case study sites.  However, having found it difficult to gain access to public security personnel I am in the process of revising my dissertation research proposal to reflect a new direction of inquiry, which will examine how private sector and civic associations respond to and participate in police reform in the context of high insecurity and low public trust.  While Monterrey’s business elite and Tijuana’s civil society organization provide considerably different models, I hope further examination will reveal important clues about how public officials can promote and institutionalize citizen participation in police reform and increase public trust in law enforcement.

Thanks to the Tinker Foundation's Field Research Grants Program for its support.

- Jeanna Cullinan
Ph.D. candidate, Public Administration
School of Public Affairs (SPA)
American University