Police reform in Uruguay (or how to make an elephant trot)

Written by: Federico del Castillo y Ricardo Fraiman

#PoliceReform #PoliciaNacional #PolicingModel

It is unusual to see an elephant running. In fact, we don’t even know if elephants run, jogging, or just walk fast. While most animals run with their bodies off the ground, elephants never leave the ground. When running, their centre of gravity hardly ever shifts, and at least two of their four legs are in contact with the ground at all times. In fact, their front legs run giddily, while their hind legs do not even flex; they practically walk. They run, but they don’t run.

The metaphor is useful to think about the path taken by the Uruguayan National Police in recent years. Between 2010 and 2020, this elephant of 33,000 officers woke up from a long nap and was put to trot towards the most significant police reform process since the return to democracy, which even presented innovative features in the Latin American context.

There is a wealth of descriptive material on police reform, but few texts explore behind the scenes to explain the how of police reform. We propose here to reflect on the mechanisms that set this process in motion and its limitations. To do so, we invite readers to accompany us on a conceptual journey. We do not conceive of processes of institutional change (or public policy in general) as unilinear processes, designed, executed, monitored and evaluated from a predefined point of arrival to a predefined point of destination. On the contrary, large-scale transformations such as police reforms need to be thought through with their comings and goings, their institutional and bureaucratic timelines, and with different conceptual repertoires involved. In other words, closer to the trot of an elephant than to the 100 metres run by an athlete.

Missteps and lessons learned along the way

In order to analyse this complex institutional framework, we will begin by pointing out the most important point: Uruguay’s police reform was built on effective alliances between reformist political and police leaders that made civilian governance of the police possible. How, then, did this search for trust and control come about?

A few years into its mandate in 2005, the progressive government finally decided to address policing issues. It did so, surprisingly, with a few so-called generals. Surprisingly because the process of reforming any police force requires the implementation of a new paradigm, and in this case the enthusiastic but austere climate of ideas hardly matches the challenges of major organisational change. The assumptions are easy to list: (a) the need to banish a certain «milico-phobic»[i] attitude of the left in general and the progressive government in particular; (b) the conviction that governing security demands the building of trusting relationships with the Police; (c) the belief that the Police needed greater support from Politics to act; (d) the intention to understand police perceptions, diagnoses and problems in order to jointly find solutions; (e) the claim that the high level of the Police should adhere, in all instances and decisions, to the “high level policy”[ii]; (f) the certainty that the police were deprofessionalised and precarious, and that to activate a change it was necessary to professionalise it and provide it with the necessary tools to crystallise all these assumptions into actions.

According to these views, the ways of being in the world dictate the ways in which we should act in it. Initially, therefore, police officers were selected who fit the ideal type implicit in the assumptions of change for leading the force: an honest, loyal, willing and professional police officer. This first stage of the change process took at least two years and involved the selection of police officers for the National Police Directorate and the country’s main police district, the city of Montevideo. The police officers in charge of these units coincided in certain attributes: honesty, professionalism, willingness to learn, dialogue and permeability to the advice of international specialists as well as that of technicians from the Ministry of the Interior.

In this way, police and civilians began to construct a language that only after trials, tests and learning from the new modalities of crime management would be consolidated as a lingua franca. We identified a moment when the search for this language began to acquire an intelligible grammar. An episode that put the traditional strategies of police disembarkation and «pressing» in the neighbourhoods into crisis by showing their limitations, which served as an opportunity to try out new strategies in the future.

We refer to the implementation of the so-called «mega- operations”, invasive strategies of police saturation inspired by the native police theory that assigned irregular settlements as the preferred locus of urban crime; in particular of «rapiña», a type of crime designed to punish armed robbery or robbery under threat. Police common sense essentialised criminal attributes to the inhabitants of these settlements, and/or argued that the lack of state control and protection of these territories was the cause of the problem. Ministerial and police commanders designed the mega-operations inspired by the Brazilian model of territorial control of favelas, the Programa Nacional de Segurança Pública com Cidadania (PRONASCI), which articulated security policies with social actions, to design their intervention.

The mega-operations accumulated objections of all kinds and origins, and can be considered a great failure. Part of this is due to the clumsy design of the police intervention: multiple simultaneous raids with laughable seizures of weapons and drugs; dozens of detainees to process one or two people; ineffective ostentation of police authority; social unrest due to the stigmatisation of reducing all the inhabitants of a settlement to the status of criminals. But let us take the critique to a deeper level: the multi-agency intervention was rushed, failed to plan and create targeted interventions and, above all, aroused great unease among the politicians in charge of the social protection agencies.

This failure, however, accredits the need for change rather than undermining it. It simply assumes that change is needed both in the relationship of policy to the police and in the technical competencies of the police. Even with the support of all state agencies, without a precise definition of the problems there is no way to solve them. For the first time, the Ministry of the Interior placed in the public arena a socio-criminal diagnosis that called for the combined efforts of all state agencies. In a crude and rudimentary way, the Ministry of the Interior put forward the social consequences of inequality and the limits of police work: if crime has social causes, the latter must be tackled in a preventive way by other state agencies.

The experience meant the coming together of different institutional actors in a field that made most of them uncomfortable: criminal violence. External objections were manifold, but within the Ministry of Interior, three new assumptions have probably revised the above-mentioned ones: (a) it is urgent to professionalise the police and greatly expand its diagnostic competencies; (b) to prevent and reduce crime, new methods must be tested; (c) interventions must tend to be multi-agency given the multidimensionality of the criminal phenomenon. The failure of the mega-operations was succeeded by one of the most fermenting, experimental and creative stages in the history of the Ministry of the Interior and the Police.

Fermenting and experimental times

Between 2013 and 2014 two processes of change came together. The first is the Comprehensive Citizen Security Programme (funded by the Inter-American Development Bank), a pilot programme that, among other things, sought to develop preventive policing and to be an organisational test bed for developing and evaluating different policing strategies in order to universalise those that proved effective. Problem-oriented policing (POP) and hot spot patrolling were two of the main initiatives to emerge from this programme, which were tested in three police stations in Montevideo.

The second, much larger and more important process was the restructuring of the Montevideo Police Headquarters (hereafter «la Reestructura»), the district with 80% of Uruguay’s crime and the largest number of police officers. It was a decentralising process, which created an organisational structure of five Operational Headquarters (four territorial and one support staff). If the Citizen Security Programme is an experimental project that seeks to change the way crime is managed, the Restructuring can be seen as a process with a dual purpose: to improve the effectiveness of all police functions and to reduce irregularities and deviations in the work of the police. This strategy involved the creation of four «Zones» that absorbed the investigative, police response and security functions previously held by police stations, units that had aroused suspicions (and accumulated certainties) of police corruption.

The pilot programme and Restructuring met not to collide. If the police stations take a back seat, a project that seeks to improve them has no destination. It was decided, therefore, to universalise some of its components and evaluate its most promising actions in order to extend its scope to the entire territory of Montevideo.

Looking back, we can affirm that this was the fastest, most fermenting, open and coordinated stage of the whole process of change we are describing. In a few months, through the Pilot Programme, the courses given by internationally renowned universities (University of Cambridge, University College of London, and John Jay College of Criminal Justice) were extended to hundreds of police officers from the Montevideo Police Headquarters. Evidence-based security policies, problem-oriented policing, police investigation methods, dissuasive hot-spot patrolling, statistical models of spatial representation of crime, and criminal analysis techniques became common topics in the daily language of police officers of all ranks, both officers and – until then – junior staff.

At the same time, the crime prediction software, Predpol, was contracted and an experiment was designed that randomly divided Montevideo into two sections: eleven police stations were assigned to the software while a similar number were in charge of the forecasts made by the brand new Tactical Information Directorate (DIT) that operated within the orbit of the Montevideo Police Headquarters. The Citizen Security Programme provided Predpol software and advice from the Cambridge University Criminology Centre to improve crime prediction methods, the Ministry’s Institutional Development Division monitored the police time assigned to each hot spot, the Inter-American Development Bank and the University of Maryland provided an experimental evaluation, the Montevideo Police Headquarters created the police group of analysts and made a monumental effort to have police officers in charge of response patrols devote their free time to deterrence. But none of this could be done without a series of controls over police work that were made possible through effective civilian governance of the force: the installation of a geolocation system installed in the radios of the resources deployed in the territory, and a fuel control system installed in patrol cars. Both technologies made it possible to locate police officers and monitor their stay in their assigned locations. For the first time, the outline of a public security policy was designed with the teamwork of police officers, civilian technicians from different offices of the Ministry of Interior and external advisors and experts.

The lessons learned from this experience were manifold. Some of them: that evening and night hours demanded greater police presence, that foot patrols are more effective in deterring crime than vehicle patrols, and that the criminal analysis methodology used by the DIT was more appropriate than that of the Predpol software.

Many of the usual notions hereafter find their foundations in this experience. The assumptions outlined above can then be complemented by the following propositions: (a) the importance of having a highly trained Police; (b) the need for team building; (c) innovation, monitoring and permanent evaluation is the optimal triad of public security policy; (e) empirical evidence and external academic advice are urgently needed to solve the most challenging problems; (f) organisational forms (structure, number of personnel, incentives, etc.) should be guided by crime diagnostics; (g) technologies are not neutral and contain paradigmatic implications; (h) recognition of the impact on the police image of the use of new technologies and the acquisition of applied knowledge.

In short, the conclusion of this experiment outlined a new paradigm.

Evangelism in the new paradigm

There are common features to be found in all the new arrangements of the Home Office and its police. Because it wants to reduce crime imperatively, the governing cast, unlike the police or civil servants, has to become a promoter of change. In the eyes of police or technical officers, it is unwise to accelerate change when their progress has not been institutionalised. For them, stability is essential. On the other hand, it must be possible to develop transformations if a paradigm has been found, and not only must it be possible in theory, but this possibility can be implemented when the means to do so have also been discovered. Undoubtedly, the conjunction of different civilian offices together with honest and capable police officers, with the necessary political support, can achieve the desired speed.

Having admitted this, the Policy promoted three projects almost simultaneously: a new Police Organic Law, the reform of police education, and the creation of the Highly Dedicated Operational Programme (PADO). We will focus on the latter.

PADO was a strategy of police patrolling on the ground in segments (100-metre stretches of streets) and at times of high crime concentration, inspired by the knowledge developed during the process described here. PADO offered financial compensation to police officers who were willing to work during peak crime hours. The work of criminal analysis and operational work remained associated because the supervision, logistics, permanent monitoring and redesign of police tactics fell to the same police hierarchies. Each with its own functions, but working in unison on shared responsibilities that no longer had clear boundaries or definitions.

The strategy resulted in the reduction of “rapiña” in the locations where the programme[iii] was deployed, and in turn the enshrinement of a huge organisational effort. But the organisational success of PADO was not considered in the same way as the crime reduction it produced. And here perhaps lies one of its limits: while PADO reduced crime figures, other projects, such as problem-oriented policing (also supported by empirical evidence), lacked the human resources necessary for its implementation. It was not until the effects of the implementation of the new accusatory Criminal Procedure Code that the PADO gave way to other innovative policing initiatives.

Any police force without civilian control, or any police force in which the civilian bureaucracy does not exercise a monitoring function, or any police force in which state officials lack information about it, is an undemocratic police force. The High Operational Dedication Programme is the model that guided the Interior Ministry’s initiatives until the end of the period, a triangle with three well-defined vertices: the political authorities, the police hierarchy and the technical officers.

The new police model was delineated: a police force open to the civilian world, to academic knowledge, as well as to the monitoring of civilian officials, modern, capable and close to democratic political power.

Rest after the trot

We begin our text with the metaphor of a trotting elephant, rather than that of, say, a peregrine falcon flying at 320km/h. The fact is that police reform was marked by accelerated impulses and at the same time slow movements, setbacks, accidents and unforeseen leaps. The process ended in a dead end, and it only took a few months for a change in the political orientation of the national government to imply the interruption of consolidated processes and others in the process of consolidation. Reform ceased in 2020, giving way to a policing model based on traditional values, knowledge and practices.

Seen in perspective and against the backdrop of the above, the contrast between one model and the other is significant. As we have chosen here to emphasise how it was done, we leave out many dimensions linked to what was done. So in fairness to the latter, it is worth at least mentioning the doctrinal transformations that demilitarised the police. For example, the reduction of the promotion scale from 14 to 10 ranks, the unification of the NCO and officer ranks into a single scale, the prioritisation of merit and educational performance over seniority for promotion, and the changes in the police disciplinary regime, replacing arrest sanctions with pecuniary sanctions. The educational reform also contributed to reducing the hierarchical distance between junior personnel and officers, reflected, for example, in the opening of mechanisms for junior officers to enter the officer career, the homogenisation of their curricula and the suspension of the internship regime that established different training experiences between officers and junior officers. No less important are the dignification of the working conditions of the police, which included providing them with adequate tools for the performance of their duties (vehicle fleet, weapons, communications, equipment, uniforms, etc.) and increasing the salaries of police officers to historic levels and above inflation, among other initiatives that we exclude simply for reasons of space.

But why did these transformations not survive the change of administration in 2020? In other words, why was police reform replaced by a regressive, de-anchored, authoritarian and de-professionalising model? A book is needed to answer this question, so we will simply hazard a few preliminary hypotheses here.

A first element to consider is based, paradoxically, on one of the strongholds of the reform: the excessive dependence on a team of police leaders that could be easily replaced. Although the hard core of civilian and police leadership made it possible to implement significant transformations, it hindered the spillover and consolidation of police professionalisation to the rest of the institution. The replacement of these leaders, tied to the change of government, definitively interrupted police reform.

Second, the reliance on crime data to measure the success or failure of police reforms. The police alone should not have a monopoly on reducing crime (nor should they!). Social policies in Uruguay did not accompany the course taken by the police, and failed to incorporate a security dimension and assume the leading role that should correspond to them in this area in the context of a progressive government. Thus, the growth of crime in Uruguay during the reform years overshadowed the more substantive transformations in the police, pushing them into the background and facilitating their interruption.

Thirdly, an ideological dilemma, which is perhaps the most important. Reforming the police from a progressive perspective should not only consist of implementing modern and innovative policies, but also of modifying the conceptual matrix of the police, which is close to the punitive common sense that we find widespread in other social spaces. In this sense, it was not entirely possible to interpret the feelings of the majority of the police in order to present these transformations as an alternative to traditional practices, and thus effectively transform police work. The meaning of these changes is not the same for a political hierarch as it is for an officer working 24-hour shifts in a police station in the interior of the country. The dialogue with police actors outside the circle of trust was limited, in part, it must be acknowledged, because ten years is not enough time to make all the components of the elephant move at the same speed.

On the other hand, dialogue was also limited outside the institution. But this was not only due to miscommunication on the part of the Ministry of the Interior, but also to a lack of interest in listening on the part of actors from social protection agencies and sectors of the progressive camp. Let us be precise on this point: the Uruguayan police oriented its practices on a doctrinal framework of 1971, which prepared its militarization after the 1973 coup d’état. It was almost totally unsuited to the political, social and criminal conditions. Reform was needed to modernise all aspects of policing and to allow a realistic understanding of today’s security problems. Perhaps the unsuspecting reader might simply assume that a police reform attempted by a progressive government would automatically take on the same political signatures. But it is not true that because they are based on evidence from empirical criminology and enunciated from a left-wing platform, these transformations are essentially progressive. Their progressive sense must be found, instead, in the context in which these actions acquire meaning. In the National Police of Uruguay in the 21st century, these transformations were profoundly groundbreaking and meant a radical change of course from the de-professionalised and militaristic police that preceded it. But the progressive camp did not read the reform in this way. It preferred the comfort of finding continuities between one model and another. If the left and the intellectual camp are not willing to leave the grassroots committee or the university to talk to the police, exchange ideas, and propose frameworks and conceptual schemes that can be translated into the latter (that is, to be a valid interlocutor for the police), the reforms run the risk of being translated into police common sense and thus drifting into the sophistications of the crudest punitivism.

[i] The term «milico» is used in Uruguay for both police and military personnel. Police officers often refer to each other in this way. Especially when they criticise supposedly «essential» or «traditional» aspects of their behaviour.

[ii] L’Heuillet, H. (2009) Baja Política, Alta Policía. Un enfoque histórico y filosófico de la policía. Prometeo Libros, Buenos Aires.

[iii] Véase Chainey, S. P., Serrano-Berthet, R., y Veneri, F. (2020). The impact of a hot spot policing program in Montevideo, Uruguay: An evaluation using a quasi-experimental difference-in-difference negative binomial approach. Police Practice and Research, 22(5), 1541-1556.

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