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Rising Star: Dr. Nathan Pino


Dr. Nathan Pino:
Why democratic police reform efforts often fail
in transitional and developing countries

Dr. Nathan Pino
Dr. Nathan Pino: "Western countries
typically make democratic police reform
one of the conditions for receiving aid, but they
fail to consider the context in which
the police are operating in the countries
receiving their assistance."

August 2012—Sociologist Nathan Pino studies efforts to reform police in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and South Africa, and why those reform efforts often fail.

“Western countries typically make democratic police reform one of the conditions for receiving aid, but they fail to consider the context in which the police are operating in the countries receiving their assistance,” Pino explained.

“For example,” he said, “democratic police reform doesn’t work in authoritarian countries whose judicial systems are characterized by high levels of human rights abuses and repression. To succeed in reforming the police, you must also reform the judicial system.”

Pino is an international authority on democratic police reform in the context of globalization. The co-author of two books on the subject, Pino says that policing and police reform in developing countries are affected by other forms of international assistance, such as economic and military assistance and that relating to political development. In his first book, Democratic Policing in Transitional and Developing Countries (Ashgate 2006), he writes that police in a democratic society should:
 

  • Uphold the rule of law rather than violate civil liberties
  • Seek to be legitimate (trustworthy and competent) in the eyes of the public
  • Be transparent and accountable. What they do and why they do it should be made public.
  • Know that their authority derives from the public, whom they serve and protect, and not from the state
  • Know that the public will provide them with what they need to be safe on the job
  • Have strong leadership that makes job security and promotion hinge on upholding the values and principles of democratic policing


In a new book to be released in September 2012, Globalization, Police Reform, and Development: Doing it the Western Way? (Palgrave MacMillan), Pino and coauthor Graham Ellison of Queens University in Belfast, UK, present case studies of seven countries that have gone through police reforms, with varying degrees of success and failure: Afghanistan, Brazil, Iraq, Northern Ireland, South Africa, Trinidad and Tobago, and Turkey.

“In several of these emerging democracies, police reform failed because a one-size-fits-all strategy for reform was imposed without considering the actual social, political, and legal environments that the police operate in,” Pino said. “In Iraq, for example, little groundwork was conducted to see how the police had operated with the public historically, what the various ethnic or sectarian loyalties of police officers were, how they responded to crime and disorder, and how they typically interacted with the government. Elements of the local population, who very likely could have offered ideas and solutions, weren’t consulted. In addition to problems with corruption and with recruitment and training of police officers, success was hindered by poor coordination between different agencies and countries providing aid.

“Western self-interest often leads to the failure of police reform, as well,” he continued. “In Iraq’s case, the security situation has been so dire that, instead of creating a conventional police force like we might think of here, we trained the police as paramilitary units—almost as battalions of soldiers—to fight insurgent groups. Training police to fight insurgents creates a war mentality among the police and puts them at a remove from the public so that they don’t engage with the community well, if at all. It also makes it hard to transform them back into a conventional police force.

“It’s also impossible to reform the police in a country where you still have an authoritarian state,” said Pino, explaining that Brazilian police trained by Americans during the Cold War of the 1960s-1980s used their training to go after non-criminal leftist opponents (clergy, artists, journalists) of the Brazilian regime. “In that case, our training created worse abuse by the police, not less,” Pino said.

Pino explained that the following elements need to be in place before successful police reform is possible:
 

  • Stable government that provides basic necessities to its people. “For example, the U.S. gave aid to South Korea after WWII, which had a stable but authoritarian government, helping to create a middle class that would later demand democracy, and that’s what happened. But in Afghanistan and Iraq, we’re trying to work with unstable corrupt governments that aren’t able to provide basic necessities, and our democratizing efforts are more likely to fail as a result.”
  • Democratic political and justice systems. “If you’re trying to democratize the police, you also have to work to reform the political and justice systems to gear them toward upholding human rights.”
  • Government autonomy. “Developing countries such as Trinidad and Tobago and Afghanistan depend on foreign aid, which keeps them subservient to developed countries. The United States might like for them to be subservient for geopolitical reasons, but to become better developed they need to be able to make their own decisions about their economies, their justice systems, and so forth.”
  • Coordinated efforts among the states and agencies providing aid. “In Afghanistan, for example, multiple countries plus NATO and the European Union have been involved in training police and judges and their staffs, without coordinating their efforts. These entities have had different missions and objectives and haven’t communicated well with each other. They’ve been talking across each other, essentially.”
  • Honored commitments of time and funding. “If you say you’re going to commit $2 billion to reforms, then do it. The European Union has backpedaled on some of its commitments to the Afghan and Iraq reconstruction, meaning that some of the things they promised to fund didn’t get done.”
  • Involvement by local stakeholders. “When I was in Trinidad [as a Fulbright Fellow], I noticed that there were community-based organizations working in the most violent parts of the island. They understood the island’s problems and could have at least informed the planning that went on, but they were never consulted. Your reform effort won’t succeed unless you involve local stakeholders who can put pressure on the government to make things work.”
  • Ethical leadership and competent staff provided by the countries giving aid. “You need people who actually know the country and can work with the people. That’s why you want to bring in more local actors as well. There’s a term in Trinidad called Tourist Criminologist—someone who flies in, collects data, and then tells the police what to do, without knowing much of anything about the country. It doesn’t work.”
  • Reform that is mutually sought. “You can’t just demand reform and impose it without resistance from the local population. The country receiving aid and the country giving it need to be on the same page.”
  • Police who are receptive to change. “Police need to be stakeholders, too, and to see themselves as agents of reform. You have to tailor a plan to them. For example, how will you deal with past atrocities? In Northern Ireland, they bought off the police who had committed atrocities against Catholics, by giving them nice severance packages. I doubt that anyone will put that kind of money into developing countries outside of Europe.”
  • Security and human rights must be addressed with equal emphasis. “Some groups want to talk only about human rights problems, but in places where the murder rate is very high—for example, in El Salvador, Jamaica, Mexico, South Africa, and Trinidad, where people are killing each other over control of drug distribution—there’s also a desperate need for security. Security and human rights must be addressed at the same time, but that doesn’t usually happen.”
  • Government must be transparent and accountable. “We’re not doing a good, continual, independent evaluation of the effectiveness of our police training abroad. When we train police abroad, we need to evaluate it, and the local population needs to know what’s going on. That’s not happening.”


In the criminology field, Pino is known for having pointed out that the policing methods used in Western countries don’t always work well; yet, Western countries export them to developing countries anyway.

“We have good ideas for policing, but often we don’t implement them well here,” Pino said. “In New York City, for example, people in minority communities complain about zero tolerance policies, yet NYC Chiefs of Police have tried to implement those same policies in places like Brazil. Those policies haven’t worked well there, either.

“Getting police to uphold democratic values and maintain good policing principles in developing and transitional countries takes more than a guy coming in for a month and telling them what to do or giving a class,” Pino concluded. “Police reform takes structural, systemic change to sustain.”