The Problem of Policing

By Megan McArdle

Amanda Taub has a response to my previous post on the favelas that's a mite sharp:

i'm struggling to think of any country in history where the police haven't ever effectively ceded large chunks of territory to violent criminal gangs. (Frankly, the list of places where they aren't doing that at the moment is pretty short.)

There's certainly no need to stretch as far back as Sherwood Forest to find other examples. If we just jump in the car and start driving south, the hits will keep on coming. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Guatemala City, Guatemala. San Salvador, El Salvador. Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Kingston, Jamaica, (if we feel like going for a swim). Colombia has made great strides recently, but it's still hardly a beacon of state-presence. And its historical record is not good - for instance, the "el Caguan" demilitarized zone that the Pastrana government ceded to the FARC in 1999 was more than 40,000 hectares. (Fun trivia: that would make the DMZ roughly the same size as the largest estimate I've seen of the size of Sherwood Forest back in Robin Hood's day.)

This really shouldn't be surprising. The role that police play in the United States just isn't the role that they play in much of the rest of the world.

Fair enough; I don't have a comprehensive knowledge of policing issues in developing countries, which is why I admitted my ignorance--though I'll say that some of these things are not like the other; lawless hinterlands are common in history, vast no-go zones in urban areas less so.  My throwaway line about Sherwood Forest probably wasn't particularly apt, though I'll note that the narrative sort of depends on its roads having a lot more (licit) traffic than the FARC-controlled areas seem to.


I also think you have to distinguish between areas where the cops can't get control, like Cuidad Juarez (and hell, the South Bronx in the 70's), and areas where they aren't even trying--whatever you want to say about the Mexican government's efforts in Ciudad Juarez, they certainly haven't given up on the place.  

But point taken; police ceding control is not uncommon.  Taub goes on to make an important point:

In wealthy, developed countries, we expect the police to enforce laws, investigate crimes, and come when someone calls for help. But in places without the rule of law - where the state doesn't have a monopoly on violence, and the state's use of violence isn't constrained by law - that's just not the role they play. There, the police are just another group that uses violence on behalf of the powerful. They're not much different from death squads. (Often, when their shifts end, they're not different at all.) So really, it's inaccurate to talk about those states "ceding" territory to criminal gangs' day-to-day rule, because the state was never in the business of day-to-day rule in those areas in the first place.
 

For some reason, this issue gets almost no attention when we talk about things like foreign policy, or economic development. Kate and I have taken to referring to this as "police blindness" - the phenomenon of otherwise-smart people never thinking critically about policing, even when analyzing issues directly related to it. (Crime, corruption, violence against women, etc.) Perhaps it's because there is no MDG for freedom from crime and violence? (Or perhaps because NGOs aren't exactly lining up to advocate for the interests of cops moonlighting as death-squadders...)

Again from the perspective of a non-expert, let me offer the surmise that people tend to ignore the issue because it's hard.  Fixing it often requires directly taking on the security structure that supports the very state which controls access to the people you are trying to help.  It also probably requires some pretty hefty cultural change on the part of the police and the policed: the latter have to demand the rule of the law, the former to deliver it.  This is not impossible--I was in Mexico City recently with the New America Foundation, where I was told by a seasoned diplomat that policing in Mexico City now resembles American policing to an extent they wouldn't have dreamed possible ten years ago.  But it's the sort of change that's hard to foster externally.  I suspect it simply has to evolve, as American policing has over the centuries, with society continually deciding how to resolve the inherent tensions between order and civil rights.

Moreover, this is way outside the expertise or interest of the traditional development community; if they wanted to be in law enforcement, they'd have joined the police force.  Human Rights Watch does yeoman's work documenting the abuses of governments the world over, but I doubt that its dedicated employees would be very good at, say, actually keeping law and order in Rio.  I might also argue that, as I alluded to in the previous paragraph, building a functioning police force is probably going to involve tradeoffs that development professionals and donors are bound to find uncomfortable--uncomfortable in a way that, say, polio eradication is not.  

And what are donors supposed to measure?  Is it good or bad if arrests go down? How do you tell if the police force is more or less inclined to solicit bribes or join a paramilitary force?
Other development problems are hard, too, but they do not tend to offer such unpleasant condundrums on first consideration.  

These are, as I say, the musings of a non-expert.  But I suspect that the sort of things that journalists struggle with when writing about development are also the sort of things that bother development professionals themselves.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2010/11/the-problem-of-policing/67097/