Venezuela’s “Police Revolution”: Rolling Back or Pushing Forward Reform?

Rebecca Hanson

Earlier this month President Nicolas Maduro announced a “police revolution” that would “purify” the 141 police bodies in the country. The announcement was motivated by the recent Quinta Crespo siege and the high profile murder of Robert Serra, events that once again have put police abuse and violence in the public spotlight.

The “police revolution” could be a perfunctory move intended to deflect criticism of the government. Indeed, a comprehensive, though embattled, civilian-led police reform that began five years ago has been slowly rolled back by Maduro’s administration.

But it is also possible that recent police misconduct has reenergized the reform started five years ago by the Chávez government.

As part of the “revolution” Maduro created a Presidential Commission, calling on it to “combat the mafias festering inside the country’s police.” The Commission has from November 1st until April of next year to investigate and possibly restructure the PNB, CICPC, and municipal and state police.

Freddy Bernal, a former mayor of Libertador—the largest municipality in Caracas—and National Assembly representative, was named the head of the commission. Bernal also previously headed up the National Assembly’s disarmament commission in 2010.

Bernal was a loyal supporter of Chávez and has been an active member in the PSUV. But, more importantly, he was a high-ranking police officer in the Metropolitan Police and helped to organize the Ceta Group, one of its specialized tactics unit.

Bernal’s experience as an officer could forestall complaints–heard frequently from officers–that reformers are idealistic and out of touch with the reality of the police. Thus, he could give police reform legitimacy that the previous civilian-led reform was lacking.

So far what the Presidential Commission has proposed is not  “revolutionary,” if that term is taken to mean a radical break with the past. Indeed most of the strategies that have been announced reflect measures—police professionalization, education, and reorganization—already proposed by the 2009 reform

On November 12th the Presidential Commission reported the creation of five subcommittees that will focus on these issues.

One subcommittee is charged with reviewing, evaluating, and simplifying legal regulations and police procedures. The “Profile of the Bolivarian Police” committee will review the curriculum and educational materials used by all police forces.

Another commission will study the organizational structure of the police. A fourth is meant to interface with “Popular Power,” collecting citizens’ suggestions and complaints. And the “Integrated Security of Police” commission will monitor and supervise officers “social security” and welfare.

According to Bernal, “Given that they are at risk as they perform their public security functions, we want the police to know that there is a Revolutionary State that is going to protect them from the time they enter the academy until they retire.”

The Commission has already stepped in and begun evaluations of three police forces (the Police of Caracas, Libertador municipality’s police force, and two municipal police forces) and absorbed two municipal police forces into state ones. Eight other police forces will receive “technical assistance” from the Commission. 

According to the Commission, this “intervention” is necessary due to the forces’ lack of “ability, formation, and tools” to adhere Plan Patria Segura, the country’s current security plan. Libertador’s police currently employs only 4% of the officers needed to provide adequate service in the highly populated area; and, on a day-to-day basis, there are more officers acting as personal bodyguards (400) than are engaged in patrol and prevention (270-300).  

The fact that the government has responded to a highly visible case of police violence with plans to investigate and address its root causes is promising. As we have seen in the case of Ferguson, Missouri, official responses to police brutality can catalyze even more violence and police repression.

And, given the remilitarization of citizen security seen over the past few years, the focus on professionalization and concern over excessive use of force is a positive sign.

Nevertheless, a few concerns have already been raised, particularly regarding Bernal’s role in the commission. Bernal has been active in government-led disarmament initiatives. However, in a press conference November 6th, Richard Arteaga from the Primero Justicia party claimed that Bernal has ties to armed citizen groups and is unfit to lead a commission that should promote disarmament.

The newspaper Tal Cual questioned the appointment in an editorial piece, noting that, during his tenure as mayor, Bernal oversaw Libertador’s municipal police, which has one of the worst human rights records in the country.

And, as with previous reform, this Commission has no control to reorganize or retrain National Guard officers, who often fulfill policing functions in the country and are one of the most frequent violators of human rights.

Perhaps the most pressing question is if the recommendations eventually made by the Commission will receive consistent support from the government, necessary for effective reform. Though heavily backed by the government early on, support for the 2009 reform has been attenuating for years, in part because it has not made a dent in crime.

The impacts of this can be seen in the numbers: In 2013 10% of Police of Caracas officers were under investigation for misconduct. And 100 officers were expelled for “irregular conduct” between 2013 and 2014 alone.