Citizen security begins at the local level

An IRI-supported discussion on local security. (Photo: IRI)

Dan Fisk is Vice President for Policy and Strategic Planning for the International Republican Institute.

Every day there are tragic killings in Juarez, Caracas, San Salvador, and Rio, as well as any number of other cities throughout the Western Hemisphere. Security, along with jobs, consistently remains as the top concern for many throughout this hemisphere. It is, therefore, appropriate that the Organization of American States (OAS) has made “citizen security” the focus of its General Assembly, to begin on June 5, 2011, in El Salvador.

That citizen security is receiving attention is good news. The far more relevant question, however, relates to the extent to which citizens will be involved in addressing this challenge. Too often at diplomatic conclaves, security becomes an intellectual exercise cloaked in a nomenclature of bureaucratic jargon between policymakers. What often gets lost in the mix are the communities and the individuals who live, work, and raise families in them.

In the final analysis, all insecurity is local. No criminal or criminal organization simply springs to life as “international” or “transnational.” They all start as local actors or entities. But while crime may start as something local, it can reach a point where it overwhelms a community, and all the more quickly where institutions are weak, corruption is rife, and citizens do not have confidence in the authorities.

When criminal actors overwhelm a sub-regional unit of government, this causes the problem to become a national concern. This sequence has been repeated throughout the hemisphere, including in the United States. In fact, it is a worldwide phenomenon. And in many countries it is facilitated by the heavily centralized nature of authorities and resources, including law enforcement.

Once it becomes a national issue requiring a national entity to respond, the result is generally national in vision, scope, and measures of performance. Regardless of how well-intentioned the design and implementation of any national response, somewhere the notion of a community often gets lost. Instead, a locale becomes an “operational zone” and the citizens become statistics; personal tragedies are reduced to a mark on a map with tiny flag pins, or their electronic equivalent, in some faceless command center.

As officials discuss citizen security, the focus should not simply be on what governments can do to make their citizens feel safe, but equally on what citizens can do to make their specific communities a safer and more secure environment and on what governments and citizens can do together to identify threats and implement solutions that address them.

The place to start in formulating a response is to determine what average citizens think. From an abundance of polling data, we know there is a generalized lack of confidence in police. This is the case throughout Latin America and for police at every level. In many instances this lack of confidence is connected to the level of corruption perceived by citizens. It is also generated by actual experience with the police, namely the failure of police to respond when called upon to help or a belief that a citizen’s complaint will only result in retribution against them by the very criminals from whom they seek protection.

Despite this lack of confidence, citizens identify “more police” as essential to reducing crime and increasing security. Citizens also identify “more jobs” and “more opportunities for youth” as equally fundamental to reducing crime. Furthermore, citizens express an interest in participating more actively in the decision-making process to address insecurity in their communities. The fact of the matter is that citizens “get it” when it comes to security.

Ironically, experience has shown that citizen interest in active participation can be news to government officials. For example, while an official may understand the threat that youth gangs pose, he/she may not be aware of other issues contributing to citizen insecurity, including things like the lack of street lighting or the absence of community watch groups. Filling such gaps should be part of the programmatic “citizen security” response.

For example, in Mexico, the International Republican Institute (IRI) works to bring local residents and civil society organizations together with the mayors’ offices and police officials to analyze and develop solutions to local safety concerns. As a result of these interactions, community alarm systems, whistle-carrying neighborhood watch groups, anti-graffiti campaigns, and improved relations between local police and residents are helping to reduce robberies and other local crimes.

In Venezuela, exchanges between the Caracas Metropolitan Mayor’s office and citizens has resulted in the implementation of local solutions and the emergence of a sense of “shared responsibilities” between citizens and their city government. Recreational areas once considered dangerous due to poor maintenance or inadequate lighting have been revitalized, with citizens now using these spaces and taking steps to deter criminal activities from occurring in them.

Other examples can be found in Colombia, where polling data has helped officials design and implement initiatives to create safer neighborhoods. In the Bogota suburb of Soacha, the mayor and his staff successfully obtained funding from the central government for 200 more police officers for sectors of the city that were in particular need of additional patrols. This need was identified through polling. Citizens also expressed the need for improved street lighting in their neighborhoods to reduce the incidence of crime. Consequently, the mayor implemented a low-cost street lighting initiative, which simply required the replacement of burned-out bulbs in already existing street lamps. This simple step has contributed to a deterrence of criminal activity.

The Cartagena municipal government has begun a “Pavement Revolution” to pave roads, install street lighting, and construct sidewalks in four of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. IRI has teamed up with the Presidential Program to Fight Corruption and citizens from these four neighborhoods to create citizen oversight committees to ensure the completion of these infrastructure projects within the timeline, budget and standards laid out in the contracts. It is expected that the timely and proper completion of these projects will have a positive impact on citizen security.

While these initiatives may seem simplistic, such common sense responses can result in communities that are less susceptible to criminal infiltration and control. This, however, is not to argue that simply adding more police, or replacing burned-out street light bulbs, paving streets, or creating recreation spaces solves the security problem. There can be no illusions about the difficulty of overcoming the security challenges in many parts of this hemisphere. Many elements need to come together to address public security challenges, including:

  • establishing and/or enhancing the capacity on the ground of a professional law enforcement presence that has public confidence;
  • improving collection and use of information;
  • ensuring the capacity to investigate, detain, prosecute and incarcerate those charged and convicted of crimes; and
  • eroding the opportunities for corruption rather than corruption eroding the public trust.

But community engagement and activism have to be a part of the strategy as well. This is one lesson IRI has learned from its programming experience.

Another lesson is that it is essential to enhance local government capacity to deliver services, including but not limited to security. It is equally important to empower citizens so they can participate in finding solutions to challenges and threats to their community.

While national government-to-national government programs and assistance are important, these often take too long to trickle down to the local level. Addressing citizen insecurity requires more than night vision goggles and helicopters. Success in addressing security challenges is largely influenced by the ability of the state to build citizen trust in its capacity and, in doing so, enhance and strengthen that capacity. Strong and resilient communities constitute a necessary element in building that societal trust and in the ultimate success of any effort to transform public insecurity into public security.

If the June OAS General Assembly can encourage its member states to focus on that reality, then this meeting may contribute something more useful than another declaration on the very real challenge of enhancing citizen security.