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What kind of police?

A candidate for public office in a South American country recently made headlines in the local press when he said that murderers deserved to be shot.

His statement added fuel to a heated debate in Latin America about the role of the police in a climate of pervasive crime and inse-curity. “Meter bala”—start shooting murderers—was this candidate’s prescription. He said that a recent program to reform the police force had gone too far: new rules designed to protect the rights of suspects and reduce the number of fatalities in police confrontations were, in his view, “tying the hands” of the police. As a result, he claimed, criminals were acting with more impunity than ever.

Although there is little concrete evidence that greater use of force by the police can reduce crime, this argument is gaining popularity in countries where people are legitimately frustrated over the growth of criminal violence.

Unfortunately, this glosses over the unpleasant reality that police in many cases are actually part of the crime problem. In the city where the above-mentioned political candidate lives, the police have been accused of rampant corruption and brutality. The reform program that provoked his criticisms was launched because of public outrage over an unaccountable police force that appeared to be colluding with criminals as often as it was fighting them.

Amid finger pointing and recrimination over the police, generally little attention is paid to the real challenge: reforming the family of institutions charged with enforcing the law, protecting human rights and administering justice. In fact, several Latin American countries are using IDB loans to finance serious reforms of their judicial systems and penal codes. But these efforts are not likely to generate lasting public support so long as police forces—which are often the only contact that people have with the law—are not themselves transformed.

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