Colombian police: Not bad apples, but a rotten orchard

Bogotá boiled over dramatically this week, but where does the blame lie?

Photo: Jared Wade

“Ni esto, ni esto,” says the meme. On one side a civilian is surrounded and being attacked by police; on the other the roles are reversed. It seems like a reasonable point, but it masks a problematic fact: these are not equal situations. Ten civilians have now died in clashes with police in recent days. Those confrontations took place after a man died following a police intervention. In November a young student was shot and killed by a member of the police. Outside Bogotá there are cases like that of Anderson Arboleda. This is all on one side. Let us not pretend this is a battle between two equally pitched sides. Invariably the authorities attempt to pin this on ‘bad apples’ in the force, but that masks an uglier truth.

I don’t condone violence as a first option, but neither am I going to rush to condemn those that damage police property after years of mistreatment. Violent actions bring their own problems – one of those deaths was caused by protesters in a hijacked bus. But this is far from comparable to what figures in authority are doing, as we see video after video of them firing at civilians. Ignore the attempts to compare bad apples with bad oranges. The sentiment behind these acts of violence is very much understandable. If the authorities won’t listen to words, people will take action instead.

Let us also not ignore the language being used – police procedure in the deaths of civilians are called tragic accidents. Injuries to coppers and damage to property on the other hand are intentional vandalism. I’ll bet pounds to pesos that there are some in the crowd who just want a tear-up, but that doesn’t mean they are the majority. Is it any surprise that ordinary people feel ignored and unrepresented when they are talked about in these terms? Already the usual suspects such as María Fernanda Cabal are claiming that these were organised protests, that they are financed by narco-money. There are many that seek to delegitimise these protests, to silence this howl of rage.

What is the role of the police in society?

The police’s role in society is to uphold the rule of law. It’s difficult to see how that is served 

by repeatedly tasering a man who long ago stopped offering resistance. It’s difficult to say you are protecting the public when you shoot young men as they run away from you. The police are held to different standards than criminals for two reasons. First because one cannot claim to uphold the law while breaking it. More worryingly, because their impact is more severe. In these clashes, they are causing much more harm than the protesters, as the families of those who died know all too well.

Many, if not most, Bogotanos have a personal story about police malpractice. Early in my time in Bogotá, I was with friends in Primera De Mayo and a fight broke out on the street. Soon enough there was a guy on the floor being kicked, and when the cops broke it up I handed the fella his bag which he’d dropped. The police then took me to task for getting involved, despite clearly only trying to help the guy get his stuff back. It was an insight into the often confrontational nature of Bogotano policing. Many officers see the civilian population as the enemy.

Mistrust of the police is also ingrained in many rolos, even if they continue to show a remarkable level of faith in going to the police when they have a problem. This is often only  done as a point of order though, and many crimes remain unrecorded. That same night in the Primera de Mayo, my friend found a cellphone on the floor. I naively suggested giving it to the police, which earned me a round of laughter. Instead, we waited in a nearby bar for a call and returned it that way. The assumption was that police would have simply stolen it.

On a personal level, I have found the police I have dealt with to be, in most cases, reasonable and helpful. They have helped me with aggressive dogs in the neighbourhood, given me a lift when I had a mechanical problem on my bike, petted my dogs, and talked about the zone we live in. This is connected to my privileged lifestyle as a middle-class white man, but I’m certainly not arguing that every police officer in Bogotá is irredeemably bad. It’s also true that we are talking about systematic problems and large minorities here, not one or two isolated cases.

Corruption goes further than bribery

I’m often told that the Bogotá police are corrupt. That’s certainly true of some – I’ve been stopped with the probable intention of bribery myself and plenty of friends have similar stories. However, we must be careful with this – corruption is not just bribery. Rather, the corruption of the force here in Bogotá is in the more literal sense, that the police no longer function in their intended role.

Incompetence is the order of the day, whether on a personal level or an institutional one. Forget the minority that ask for bribes, focus on the majority that do little work, even as crimes occur in front of them. Training is almost certainly of little quality, and organisational  control is woefully lacking. There appears to be little or no consequence for acting in a brutal manner against civilians. All of these ingredients combine to make a toxic stew.

And that toxic stew is systematic and historical. Like the Met Police in my home country, major reform is now needed. Respect and trust of the police has been eroded to such an extent that events like this will continue without systematic change. While many still excoriate vandalism, it’s notable that even such bastions of the establishment as El Tiempo have called the anger ‘justified’ and called for systematic change.

A line regularly trotted out is that we should not judge the force on its few bad apples. However, we are talking here not of a few bad apples but of a critically poisoned grove of trees. If the rot is not stopped, then eventually we will instead be talking of the few good police in the city as the unusual ones, not those who are corrupt. There is precedent from other countries, and there are possibilities for change. After all, however loud the Twitterati shout, most Bogotanos still have some faith in the police, or at least the hope that they will treat them well. Many police may see civilians as the enemy, but the general populace don’t necessarily see the police in the same way. For the sake of sanity and the rule of law, let’s hope that this relationship can be rebuilt.

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