March 7, 2014
Don’t cop out of reform
Now that calm has generally returned, almost everybody (except those losing family members or property in the looting) will want to concentrate on Christmas and holiday preparations but recent events should not be so easily forgotten. Those few who worry about the immediate future often focus on the wage parity now likely to be sought by other public employees but the real lesson from this month’s upheavals should be the urgent need for police reform. President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner correctly identified this last Tuesday when she spoke of democratizing the provincial police but neither she nor her administration have since given much of a blueprint for tackling this truly complex problem.
Because trying to integrate the police into the society it should protect is like peeling an onion — one layer uncovers another. This month’s mutinies have always been presented as and often understood in terms of pay grievances but quite apart from an aversion to rewarding blackmail, pay is only part of the solution if much of the problem. Even at that level there is no simple correlation between pay levels and police unrest — thus in Santiago del Estero (one of only three provinces without disturbances) basic police pay is 1,089 pesos a month. Unless Franciscan austerity reigns in such forces, one has to assume moonlighting sometimes extending to illegal activities. This suggests that the recent mutinies might even be a back-handed index of progress in cleaning up the police if the loss of illegal earnings pressures them into seeking more pay above the counter. Those aware that improved pay is not the whole issue stress the need to accompany it with modernized professional training but even this is not enough. The before and after of the police academy is also decisive — if the police often share the same underprivileged origins as many criminals and if a future enlightened crop of idealistic cadets enter precincts full of corrupt policemen obese on pizza diets, not much will be gained. Police brutality should also figure much higher on the agenda of human rights groups even if the hundreds of victims of trigger-happy behaviour in the last 30 years pale against the thousands who went missing in a much shorter period in the military dictatorship.
What does not seem a solution is a police trade union — while it may offer a more ordered negotiating vehicle, it is likelier to create a monster resisting modernization. And surely modernizing the police should now be the priority over either permissive or tough “law and order” approaches to crime-fighting.