Policing in Mexico: Why is there no civilian oversight?

Silver or Lead / Alejandro Hope

No checks, no balances. In the United States, a high-profile case of police abuse or misconduct often leads to the creation of an independent police commission or the naming of an independent police monitor or auditor that will spearhead reform efforts. The practice is so common that there is actually a national association devoted to civilian oversight of police departments. No such luck in Mexico: civilian oversight is completely alien to police practice in this country. Out of more than 1,800 different police forces, only one has a formal mechanism of external supervision (the municipal police of Querétaro, a mid-size city north of Mexico City). And that’s not because no one has proposed: since at least a decade, a number of NGOs (most saliently the Institute for Security and Democracy, INSYDE) have been calling for the creation of independent police auditors. But those calls have mostly fell on deaf ears. Why?

Blue resistance. Why has the civilian oversight agenda failed? Many reasons:

1. Weak institutional controls. The formal institutions that should be supervising the police have been grossly inadequate at that task. The courts usually place very few limits on police behavior in criminal cases. And civil cases are not helpful either: the imposition of damages by the courts on police departments or their jurisdictions for misbehavior is an (almost) non-existent practice. Legislative bodies, meanwhile, fail to use the power of the purse to force reform upon law enforcement agencies. The result? No real crisis that would call for civilian oversight

2. Poor institutional environment. Until very recently, there was a constitutional ban of consecutive reelection by mayors. That created very short time horizons for police departments. Given that mayors and police chiefs are in and out within three years (that will change in 2018), why focus on broad institutional transformations? Buying patrol cars, weapons or uniforms are a better way of showing the public that something is being done (even if it’s useless). In addition, there are no dedicated funds for civilian oversight and, thus, governors and mayors and police chiefs always a ready budgetary excuse for not allowing external supervision.

3. No one demands it. Police reform has little political traction in Mexico. Promises of heavy-handed tactics are what works with the public. Politicians promising mano dura fare much better at the polls than any contender calling for oversight and accountability (“What? You want to defend criminals?”). And part of the media abets them, as well as some NGOs: asking for oversight is interpreted as taking the side of law-breakers. As a result, things like external control of police forces have no constituency.

Bottom line. Civilian oversight of police forces is a niche issue, but highly illustrative of the broader problems facing police reform. The political and institutional environment is highly inimical to efforts to improve accountability in law enforcement. That might change somewhat in the future: the new criminal justice system will make the police’s job in the courts far tougher. At some point, it might even create a crisis moment for some or many law enforcement agencies. Meanwhile, consecutive reelection might extend the time horizon of local government and maybe improve the chances for transformative reforms. But at the end of the day, the public needs to want reform for reform to happen. And I’m not certain that the Mexican public is yet ready to demand police oversight and accountability as a primordial issue for law enforcement. Mano dura is so much catchier.

This and that

More failure on Ayotzinapa.  The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) has taken the Federal Attorney General’s Office to task for failing to comply with 20 recommendations about the Ayotzinapa mass abduction case. A well-deserved scolding. Details here.

Necropolis. Authorities in the state of Morelos discovered a mass grave with 150 bodies. The work of organized crime? Not quite. More a demonstration of deep incompetence by the state coroner’s offices and other authorities. Read it all here.

The interactive section

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Things to look for

Big event on police reform this week, hosted by Causa en Común, a respected NGO specializing on policing issues. The best part: David Kennedy, one of the world’s smartest and most flamboyant criminologist, as well as the crafter of the world famous Ceasefire anti-violence initiative in Boston, will be a guest speaker.

Publicado con la autorización de El Daily Post.