Venezuelan Opposition’s Police Reform Law Seeks Decentralization and Increased Firepower

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Rebecca Hanson

In October the National Assembly (AN) approved in second discussion, a reform of the Ley Orgánica del Servicio de Policía y Cuerpo de Policía Nacional Bolivariana (LOSPCPNB). The reform had been in the works since August of this year.

Although the Supreme Court nixed the reform in December, as it has with almost every piece of legislation approved by the AN, the changes proposed provide a window onto the opposition’s perspective on policing. The proposed changes seek to decentralize and depoliticize the police, but also increase the availability of heavy arms and special tactical units.

The LOSPCPNB was originally passed in 2009 when the National Assembly was dominated by Chavismo. It was the result of several years of public consultation and studies by police reformers. The law set national standards for police training, hierarchy, and weapons; set the parameters and attributes of the new National Bolivarian Police (PNB); and created institutions such as the General Police Council to oversee the implementation of police reform and the Integrated Police System to coordinate between police bodies.

The law was an attempt by reformers to de-militarize Venezuela’s police model. It placed police forces and their training under civilian control and re-structured the command, which had a military structure. The law also regulated and standardized the weapons the police could carry. Before the law, police officers carried a variety of weapons, including those issued to the military and even sawed-off shotguns (see the CONAREPOL report). The broader police reform also did away with military training, instead instituting a university system for police and other security officers.

The Proyecto de Ley de Reforma de la Ley Orgánica del Servicio de Policía y del Cuerpo de Policía Nacional was introduced by National Assembly representative Delsa Solórzano (Un Nuevo Tiempo), president of the Commission of Interior Policy. Mesa de la Unidad Democrática (MUD) advisor Luis Izquiel and citizen security consultant Fermín Marmol García collaborated in the writing of the reform.

According to Solórzano, “This law regulates everything that refers to the service of our police forces and the PNB. It establishes important aspects such as putting an end to the intervention in police forces for political reasons. Likewise, it suggests that guns be returned to security bodies. Today, delinquents have more firepower than the police.”

In the past the opposition has criticized the government and President Maduro for placing military officers at the head of policing institutions and directly involving the military in citizen security initiatives, such as the Liberation of the People Operation. However, this reform facilitates a revival of militarized policing in other ways.

Below I look at the major changes made to the LOSPCPNB and concerns that human rights organization PROVEA and criminologist Keymer Ávila have published in a report on the reform.

Decentralization

The opposition and the government have long differed over whether Venezuela’s police forces should be centralized into one structure or decentralized with police bodies under the control of local authorities, reflecting some basic differences in political philosophy.

Police reformers aligned with the government have publicly criticized the decentralization of policing for years, saying that decentralization led to a deterioration of norms and standards and the unnecessary creation of new police forces.

The lack of coordination between the 147+ security bodies was an important critique made by the CONAREPOL, a study commissioned by the Chávez government, which provided the groundwork for the 2009 police reform. Two new institutions were created by this reform and charged with coordinating police forces—The General Police Council and the Integrated Police System (VISIPOL).

As noted in a previous post, The MUD has said returning to a decentralized system of citizen security is necessary to keep the PNB from making other police forces, or “those police bodies closest to citizens” inefficient and “almost useless.” Under the proposed reform, governors and mayors would be allowed to create police forces (Art. 28), a power previously held by the Executive Branch under the LOSPCPNB.

The reform not only allows metropolitan districts to create and organize their own police forces – previously prohibited by Art. 45 – but also eliminates a section of the law that specifically disbanded the Metropolitan Police (Section 10, Art. 83), the police force that policed Caracas from 1969 until 2010. This section was included in the original law due to the Metropolitan Police’s participation in a 2002 coup d’état against Hugo Chávez.

The reform also weakens the Executive branch’s ability to oversee and direct police forces. The language of “Órgano Rector” (Governing Body), which refers to the Executive branch in the law, has been replaced by “Órgano Coordinador” (Coordinating Body). While the previous wording implies that the Executive holds a governing position over police forces and institutions, the latter implies that its role is to coordinate citizen security. Other institutions created by the 2009 law, like the Integrated Police System, have been downgraded from supervising to coordinating bodies.

Previous articles that empowered the Executive to create police forces, intervene in police forces, suspend police functions, and implement technical assistance have been removed (73-76). Furthermore, the reform demands that all interventions or suspensions of municipal and state police forces end immediately. This addition to the reform attempts to end interventions by the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace into municipal and state police that began with the “Police Revolution” in 2014.

The reform seeks to devolve to municipal and state police forces responsibilities currently restricted to the National Police. For example, all police would be able to protect and guard those considered “high ranking officials” of the state.

And, while the PNB would still to be educated and formed at a national university (the Universidad Nacional Experimental de la Seguridad) – which was previously in charge of training and retraining all police forces and was created by the 2009 reform – according to the new reform metropolitan, state, and municipal police are to be formed in their own universities.

However, Article 59 does not state who will train metropolitan, state, and municipal police forces, only that they will be formed “in their own university, school, and academic institutions.” There is no language barring the military from training police forces. And, while Article 6 declares all police as “civilian” in character, which includes their “leadership, personnel, direction, structure, culture, strategies, tactics, equipment and supplies,” training and education are absent from the Article.

Weaponry and Tactical Forces

Luis Izquiel, the MUD’s Citizen Security Coordinator, has criticized the government´s marquee citizen security initiative, the Operación Liberación del Pueblo (OLP) for sending military operations into poor sectors, where they violate human rights. Yet, he has also critiqued the government for “disarming” the police by regulating the weapons that officers are issued, suggesting that the government has taken away their larger guns and (submachine) weapons while leaving delinquents completely armed. And indeed the reform facilitates aspects of the remilitarization of policing that we have seen under the Maduro government.

New language has been added to “ensure” that the police are provided the “guns and equipment that allow them to effectively protect citizens from delinquency.” The reform deregulates the types of guns that can be carried by police forces, which the LOSPCPNB had limited to 9mm pistols.

Furthermore, all police forces are now allowed to create special tactical units and special operation teams – armed with military grade weapons – whereas under the LOSPCPNB only the PNB were allowed to organize these units. The LOSPCPNB regulated the creation of special tactical units, recognizing their utility while seeking to limit their growth.

Evidence from the U.S. suggests that as tactical units increase, they come to be used for routine policing activities, “bursting into homes with a show of force that often far exceeds the threat to them.” And such invasions most frequently occur in poor communities of color, threatening basic human rights.

Peace Zones

Since 2015, journalists have reported on “zonas de paz” in Caracas and other places. These “peace zones” are urban or rural sectors that the government has supposedly agreed to leave in the hands of organized crime—banning the police from entering these areas—on the condition that gangs will desist from using violence against other gangs. While there is no official proof that “zones of peace” exist, Article 8 of the new reform states: “Zones of peace that prohibit or limit security forces entering to protect and guarantee the rights of people…are not permitted.”

Depoliticization

The words “apolitical” or “political pluralism” now appear in the characteristics of police forces and the CGP (for example, articles 73 and 15). The communal councils have been removed from articles on citizen participation (77) and citizen oversight (78). Though communal councils have been organized in both Chavista and opposition neighborhoods, these community organizations are predominantly Chavista and were created under Chávez’s government. This does not mean that the councils can no longer participate in security and police oversight, but they are no longer specially designated to do so.

While opposition legislators have described the bill as empowering the police to better fight crime, criminologist and attorney Keymer Ávila has laid out a number of critiques of the reform in a recently published report published by PROVEA.

Ávila suggests that by deregulating police weapons and allowing all police to organize tactical groups the reform makes human rights violations more likely. Tactical groups are already allowed by the LOSPCPNB to deal with extreme high-risk situations. They are not needed, however, for day to day policing nor do preventative or investigative police need to be armed with these types of weapons. He also suggests that the creation of a website of “most wanted,” called for in Article 11,  promotes the violation of human rights protected in both the constitution and in international treaties.

Ávila also argues that many of the regulations created by the reform are repeats of regulations already present in the LOSPCPNB. For example, the regulations placed on national intervention into and supervision of police forces are unnecessary, as the LOSPCPNB already regulates the degree to which institutions like the Ministry of Interior, Justice, and Peace can intervene in state and municipal police.

And the prohibition of peace zones “contributes very little, and from a substantive and technical legislative point of view is unnecessary…The legislative role is not to take on the solving of circumstances, but rather to establish institutions.” If “peace zones” exist, the AN can address them using existing norms. At best, according to Ávila, this prohibition is aimed at gaining media attention or promoting propaganda.

Avila concludes by stating: “the problems with our police will not be resolved with sweeping official changes or legislative reform, they will be resolved with political and institutional will. The LOSPCPNB is a good law that was the product of an extensive process of consultation and studies performed by the CONAREPOL. It is the base of the Venezuelan police model, which finds itself threatened by practices like the OLP, that come from the National Executive. Now it is apparently being attacked from the Legislature as well.”