How effective is community-based policing? The case of Nicaragua.



Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Some studies show that if you live in a low-income country, you are more likely to become the victim of crime than if you live in a rich country. Sounds logical, right?

But here’s something interesting: Nicaragua has one of the lowest incomes in the region, yet it also has one of the lowest homicide rates in Central America. What’s more, the proportion of its citizens who reported that crime was their main problem was the lowest  in Latin America.

How do you explain this?

Some argue that migration patterns, which heavily damaged the social fabric in many parts of Central America, were very different in Nicaragua. We already wrote about the renewed effectiveness of the penal justice system. For many experts, however, the principal explanation is the National Police and its proactive community approach. Keeping police close to the people is one of the keys to citizen security, an issue discussed at the 6th Intensive Citizen Security Clinic held May 6-7 in Mexico City.

Nicaragua’s police, according to the Latinobarometro polling company, enjoys one of the highest levels of trust of all police departments in Latin America. What’s more, it is the most trusted institution in the country after the armed forces. Don’t we all want to have such a trusted police department?

Although it would  be very difficult to duplicate the political and social developments that forged this police department into what it is today, here are five principal components of the DNA of its community policing model:

  1. Know your community and work with it. The community is the central focus of all police work. It is engaged principally through its contacts with district chiefs and the Committees for the Social Prevention of Crime, but also through the various police activities. The  community’s cooperation is key to obtaining information needed to prevent crimes. A better knowledge of social problems also may make police more sensitive and empathetic with the community. In addition, working together generates commitments by both sides. This is the central component of the police institution’s DNA: The citizen is a partner in the search for security, not a potential criminal.
  2. Take the time to understand the dynamic of crime, then attack it. Information gathered from various channels is systematically organized, analyzed and used strategically to reduce or eliminate the factors that fuel crime. The dynamics of crime do change, so efficient channels are needed to capture and process information and stay ahead of the changes. This is the proactive part of the model, which other experts would call a problem-oriented approach.
  3. Strong institutional leadership. The task of preventing crime requires a heavy dose of cooperation among the many institutions that provide social services in general, but specially when family, sexual or youth violence is involved. The security of citizens is the responsibility of  everyone, but the police first of all.
  4. Always maintain a professional attitude. Public trust in the institution is critical, and that depends not only on its efficiency but on the citizens’ personal experiences with the police officers they encounter. The ongoing education and training of officers must be a priority.
  5.  Make planning a central competency, and permanent innovation an institutional policy. Thanks to this component, international assistance has acted as a catalyst for supporting the development  of Nicaragua’s own community policing model, enriched with outside experiences. The BID, under the clear leadership of the police, contributed actively to the DNA of this model.

If it seems difficult to introduce these genes into the police force in your community, keep in mind that the Nicaraguan police managed to achieve this with the lowest levels of  budgets, salaries and numbers of officers in all of Central America. The institution still faces many challenges, of course. But do you recognize any of these components in the DNA of your police force?

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