Large scale changes to procedures raise the question of whether the new police code will encourage civic responsibility or lead to increased corruption and abuses, writes Laura Sharkey
On June 20, the Senate approved the first new police code in 45 years, aimed at regulating antisocial and illegal behaviour. Made up of over 240 articles, the legislation covers everything from acts of vandalism to cracking down on the sale of previously stolen goods. It gives the police the power to give fines of up to 32 minimum salaries.
Luis Carlos Villegas, Minister of Defence, has hailed the reforms as heralding a new era of civic responsibility for the country, telling media: “This is not only about the police force, but also about the duties of citizens with respect to collective rights, and the state.”
Colombia’s 1971 police code has been heavily criticised for being outdated, unreflective of current criminal trends and erratically enforced. However, while few dispute the necessity of reform, the content of the new code has sparked criticism from across the political spectrum. Opponents feel the reforms are too susceptible to abuse, and that policing should be preventative, not invasive.
Alirio Uribe Muñoz, representative of the leftist Polo Democrático Alternativo and a representative of the Chamber of Deputies, even went as far as to say his party would go to the Constitutional Court because it considers that the new code restricts citizens’ rights and gives excessive power to the police.
So, what happens next? After the Senate’s approval, the law is now awaiting presidential sanction. Given that he had previously pushed congress to approve police reform on several occasions, President Juan Manuel Santos is unlikely to turn back now, in spite of the widespread concerns.
Assuming he signs it off, the police will then have six months to roll out new regulations that will impact citizens, tourists and residents alike.
A key question in any country when giving the police increased powers is whether they can be trusted with those powers. Here in Colombia, such concerns are well founded. Don’t forget it is less than six months since General Jorge Hernando Nieto took over as head of police after a corruption scandal had forced his predecessor out of office. According to Reuters, Nieto fired over 1,400 people in his first three months as part of an internal anti-corruption drive.
Critics of the code point out that by giving the police further powers, and allowing for the use of increased discretion when administering fines, it opens the way for an increase in bribe requests by unscrupulous officers.
For visitors or residents in the city, this could mean that police officers may use the multiple opportunities now at their hands (such as queue jumping, vandalism or public disorder) to impose on-the-spot fines, whether or not they have grounds to do so.
We spoke to Daniel Linsker, partner at Control Risks, who told us that the biggest problem with the new police code is exactly the same as with the old one: it needs to be effectively enforced. He explained, “the issue is not with the powers and scopes of the code but actually with the enforcement [of it]”. He added, “If you had enforced the existing police powers, we would be talking about a better security environment today”.
The challenge is that with such large scale changes to police procedures, a comprehensive training framework will be essential. The new police code focuses on defining what the offences are, and what the penalties for those offences should be, but it does not detail how these multiple articles will be enacted, only that police officers would have six months to learn the new norms following its approval.
This was re-enforced in our discussion with a police officer operating in the northern part of the city who said, “to be honest, I know very little about the reform. We have been discussing it here but no-one really knows how we will be trained, or what it means for us”.
Human rights violations
Campaigners have identified a number of clauses in the code that they say are unconstitutional and go against people’s fundamental rights. For example, in addition to limiting the right to protest and giving police powers to enter people’s houses, the code tries to regulate the use of police force. But the issue is that it actually allows the use of ‘proportional and rational’ force by police (most of whom are armed), which puts the onus on officers to interpret the rules and decide what is appropriate.
Right to protest
According to the new code, people wishing to protest have to gain approval from authorities at least 72 hours before the protest and their request could then be denied.
Civil rights campaigners feel that this breaks a constitutional right to social mobilisation, both because permits could be rejected and because it would be possible to simply prevent applications by requiring excessive paperwork.
However, senator Germán Varón, who helped draft the code, told El Espectador that the rules were only intended to help to control traffic problems, and did not give administrators the right to simply silence protesters.
In addition, while President Santos has said that a strong police force is essential for peace-building in a new post conflict Colombia, critics say the new laws fly in the face of the latest agreements with the FARC that ensure their rights to social mobilisation and political participation.
Breaking and entering
One of the more controversial measures of the code is granting the police the ability to enter properties without a warrant if they feel someone is in ‘compelling need of help’. It also allows them to enter in a number of other circumstances, such as to control noise in loud parties or due to suspicions of drug or firearm possession.
Worries exist that as with much of the rest of the code, too much is too open to interpretation – in this case, how the police would define who is in need of help.
Linsker has an interesting – and pragmatic – take on this; believing that police who were going to abuse their power are likely to already be doing it. “People are terrified that police could come into their house without a judicial order, but most will not do that in the majority of cases so this should not be a principal concern. This does not change the situation on the ground. What it does mean is that those few police officers who were going to go in to the houses during the old reform [regardless of the legality of it], will now be more justified in doing so.”
Co-existence and civic culture
Supporters of the new code say that it protects the rights of ordinary citizens, and encourages people to be more respectful of one another. Yolanda Wong, head of the School of Governance and Leadership, told El Universal that ordinary people shouldn’t have to worry about someone making noise at 4am or allowing their pet to defecate in the street.
“If we analyse the code, the majority of the actions that will be fined are to do with respecting normality.”
She continued, “this is positive, because we will be regulating actions that we have been saying for a while should already be part of the behaviours of ordinary citizens.
However activists say that a number of the clauses, like those that get tough on street vendors, will actually disenfranchise and damage the poorest citizens.
Linsker believes that this is one of the only articles of the police code which will have a significant impact on security. He comments, “for some of the criminal issues associated with criminal mining, there was nothing in the previous police code, but now there is”.
Illegal mining is a source of particular contention, doing significant damage to the environment and claiming an estimated 1,000 lives in the past decade. A 2015 government survey estimated that 80% of gold mined in Colombia is illegal.
The new powers will enable the police to make some headway on this issue, even if it may be slow to begin with as police get to grips with initial teething problems in implementing the laws.
The code contains articles aimed at preventing the exploitation of animals as well as fining antisocial behaviour from pet owners, such as failing to muzzle dogs or pick up their excrement.
This goes hand-in-hand with rising popular rejection of animal cruelty: 2012 saw a ban on bullfighting in Bogotá and subsequent national laws have given increased rights to animals, with a December bill categorising animals no longer as personal items but as other beings. There is definite hope that the new bill will also contribute to the outdated classification and treatment of animals.
What is certain is that the new code will not be a quick fix to Bogotá’s crime problems. Concerns about potential human rights violations are valid, but so are the arguments that reforms are needed to enable the police to protect the rights of ordinary citizens.
But ultimately, the issues of constitutional rights could prove irrelevant because there appear to be no answers to complex questions about implementation and socialisation.
With so much change and so much that is open to interpretation within the new rules, a huge education programme for both police and citizens will be essential to ensure effective execution and to avoid of abuses of power.
Assuming it receives presidential sanction, the updated code will come into force six months later. It covers everything from acts of vandalism to abuse on social media. We take a look at just a few aspects of the new rules:
Disturbing the peace
The code gives police much stronger powers to act against noise pollution. In severe cases, they can enter both homes and bars to forcibly switch off or remove sound systems. They can also fine offenders and shut down bars.
Restrictions on graffiti, controls on street vendors and fines for traffic offences and throwing your garbage on the street are just a few of the new public space laws. Additionally, people can be fined over COP$700,000 for urinating in the street.
Protesters will have to apply for permission 72 hours before major protests so that police can manage potential traffic problems. Spontaneous protests could be shut down.
Given that mobile phones didn’t exist when the current code was written, the updated version strengthens officers’ ability to crack down on the buying, selling and refurbishing of stolen phones and laptops. With an average of 42 phones stolen every hour in Bogotá last year, this is a significant problem for the city.
Weapons and pyrotechnics
While the laws on carrying arms have already been fortified in Colombia, the new code contains heavy controls on manufacturing, storing and carrying both arms and pyrotechnics. Even pepper spray will be banned in places where people might be drunk.
Fines can be levied for abuses of privacy on social networks. In addition the code contains stricter controls on uploading and sharing pornographic material, both online and offline.
Officers will be able to enter properties without a warrant in cases of emergency or imminent danger. Police cite examples of domestic abuse or danger to children, but critics are concerned about human rights.
There are increased controls for fare avoidance and punishments for damage or vandalism of public transport systems.
Laura Sharkey is an analyst at Control Risks, an independent, global risk consultancy specializing in helping organisations manage political, integrity and security risks in complex and hostile environments.