Mexico has over 1,800 municipal police departments. President Enrique Peña Nieto wants to get rid of them.
Late last year, the president sent to Congress a constitutional reform bill that, if approved, would force municipal agencies to merge with state police forces.
The proposal is a response to the events that unfolded in Iguala last September. As is well known, local cops from that medium-sized town in the southwestern state of Guerrero allegedly abducted 43 students from a teachers’ training college and delivered them to a criminal gang, who then proceeded to kill them.
Eliminating municipal police forces is not a new idea: In 2010, President Felipe Calderón introduced a similar bill (with some nuances) that failed to gain traction.
It was not a good idea then and it is not a good idea now. Here’s why:
- State police forces are not much better than municipal forces
Local police forces are the weakest link in Mexico’s law enforcement system, right?
Not necessarily. Since 2009, all Mexican police officers have to go through a vetting process, known in Spanish as control de confianza, to join or stay in a police force. Out of 38,698 police officers (excluding members of federal agencies) that were declared unfit for service over the past five years, 55% were members of a state law enforcement agency.
Mexicans certainly do not have a high opinion of local law enforcement, but their perception of state troopers is not much better. About 66 percent of the public perceive municipal forces as corrupt. But 62 percent have the same opinion about state agencies. Approximately 10 percent of the Mexican public rate municipal forces as very effective. Some 14 percent think likewise about state forces. Not much difference there.
State police agencies do not fare much better in other dimensions. Only 5 of 32 state forces have internal affairs units. More than 60 percent of the state police officers make less than 9,000 pesos ($600 dollars) per month, a wage level not very different from that of their municipal counterparts.
With some exceptions, state police forces have failed to reform, even though they tend to be small institutions. Excluding Mexico City and the surrounding State of Mexico, they have on average 3,000 officers. Absorbing municipal forces, some of them quite large and complex, would make reform a far more daunting prospect.
- Fragmentation has advantages
As U.S. law enforcement officers know all too well, having a large array of police departments across many jurisdictions can be quite challenging. Lack of trust and poor coordination between agencies are a constant headache. Crime does not fit into neat jurisdictional boxes; criminals do not stop at the county line. Some police departments end up being overwhelmed, while others are underused.
All that is true, but police fragmentation has two advantages that are often overlooked. First and foremost, having many police forces can facilitate innovation and experimentation. For example, the municipal police department in the central city of Querétaro has a formal civilian oversight office. It is a first for Mexico’s law enforcement community.
Another example: In Ciudad Nezahualcoyotl, a working-class suburb of Mexico City, the municipal police is implementing very innovative and highly successful community policing programs that have received high praise from both the Mexican federal government and USAID.
A second advantage of fragmentation is the dispersion of risk. If the Iguala police department becomes corrupt, the (rather significant) problems are contained in Iguala. If the Guerrero police force becomes corrupt, the whole state has a problem. Given Mexico’s longstanding problems controlling police corruption (at all levels), does it really want to run the risk of catastrophic failure?
- The world is moving in the opposite direction
Germany is the model for Peña Nieto’s move against local police forces. In the statement of purpose (exposición de motivos) that accompanies the bill, it is claimed, “Germany, as a federal state, decided to concentrate the basic functions of public safety in state police forces and merge municipal police departments with state forces, in response to the rise of organized crime and terrorism during the 1970s.”
That is true, but the German case is somewhat more complicated. After the police reform of the mid-1970s, many German cities retained local public order forces known as stadtpolizei. They have limited powers and are mostly dedicated to enforcing municipal by-laws and handing out fines for minor offenses and misdemeanors. But they exist and serve some purposes in the law enforcement system.
There is a broader point here: It is extremely difficult to find a country with no local police forces. The United States has over 12,000 local police departments. Canada counts them in the hundreds. In France, a country with a highly centralized police system, over 3,500 localities have their own municipal police. In Italy, most major cities have a polizia municipale, working alongside the national police.
And not only are local police forces the norm and not the exception around the world, but countries with centralized systems are devolving powers to local communities. Brazil, one of the supreme examples of single state police forces, is now moving away from that model: in 2006, only 4 percent of Brazilian localities had their own municipal police; by 2012, the share had grown to 18 percent.
Even in countries with a national police force, such as Chile and Colombia, the trend is to give local governments a bigger say in public safety, including some measure of control over the police units deployed in their territory.
Why do so many countries around the world maintain local law enforcement institutions? That leads to the next point.
- Police forces are multitasked institutions.
Surely, the police need to enforce the law and put criminals behind bars. But that is not their only mission. Police forces are also entrusted with maintaining public order and keeping the peace. They are mediators in everyday conflicts. They are the first responders in emergency situations. They intervene in cases of domestic violence. They provide guidance to tourists. They break up loud parties. They help old ladies cross the street.
To effectively carry out many of those tasks, the police must be solidly anchored in the community. They need to understand what and where the potential sources of conflict are. They need the type of intelligence that only comes with daily contact with the population. And that requirement puts local police forces at an advantage: they are part and parcel of the community. They know the ground in ways that an external force, no matter how qualified, cannot match.
- The proposal requires too much political capital
The Peña Nieto bill may or may not be good policy, but it is clearly bad politics. It basically calls on mayors to relinquish their police forces and then pay a still undetermined amount to state governments for public safety. Most mayors of large and medium-sized cities, particularly those governed by opposition parties, will simply not take that deal.
In spite of that resistance, could the government still ram the proposal through Congress? Maybe, but at significant political and financial cost. Since it is a constitutional reform bill, it requires a two-thirds majority and thus cooperation from at least one of the two major opposition parties (the PAN and the PRD). And, most likely, neither one would play ball on the cheap, given that mayors of large towns are significant political players. They would have to be compensated with additional federal transfers or infrastructure spending.
Moreover, they would probably demand guarantees against potential political use of the police by governors. That could require a provision forcing governors to have their police chiefs ratified by the state legislature. But that, of course, would alienate state governments. So there seems to be no easy way of doing this.
In summary, creating single state police forces is a fool’s errand. The politics are too tricky, the policy outcome too uncertain. It will probably not come to pass.
That does not mean we are stuck with the status quo. Mexican police forces are in urgent need of reform. But transforming them requires a scalpel, not a sledgehammer. There are alternatives to outright elimination of local policing. We should explore them.