Police Reform: How to Reshape a Criticized Institution?

SANTIAGO – Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch argue that Chile needs structural police reforms. They accuse the police of systematically violating human rights, but the government denies this. Should police reforms be implemented regardless? 

The social crisis in Chile is now in its sixth week, and numerous organizations have determined that there is compelling evidence that the Carabineros (Chilean police force) committed human rights violations in the handling of protesters and others since the unrest started on Oct. 18.

The latest in line is Human Rights Watch (HRW). It interviewed over 70 alleged victims of police violence, as well as experts, academics, and government officials, including the Supreme Court President. HRW said it “found compelling evidence that police used excessive force to respond to protests, injured thousands of people, whether they were engaged in violent actions or not.”

The organization also noted that “[t]he country’s emergency services treated 11,564 people injured during the demonstrations from October 18 to November 22,” and that “[o]f those, more than 1,100 had moderate or serious injuries.” 

HRW reported that “[t]he police detained more than 15,000 people and ill-treated some of them.” They also released a video in Spanish, evidencing police interactions with civilians, including resulting eye injuries. Although the crisis and the violent situations described were not new for many Chilean citizens, HRW urged the government to follow up with police structural reforms.

Why A Police Reform?

Criminology Professor Felipe Abbott of the University of Chile told Chile Today that the evidence of violence suggests the problem might very well be a structural problem. “The institution refuses to adjust its procedures to accepted levels of competency and responsibility. This not only has to do with their military character, their distance or indifference when performing civil and political control, but with a doctrinaire character, where the achievement of specific goals (e.g., public order) can openly surpass the protection of human rights.”

The effect is ironic: according to international registers, police violence is one of the main factors that impedes a crisis and prevents protests from ending on a positive note.

How Do You Reform the Police?

Amnesty International and HRW argue that police reform is fundamental if the government wants to solve the current social crisis. HRW, for example, made several recommendations in its report:

  • Hold the police accountable for any misconduct.
  • Improve vigilance and control measures within the institution.
  • Minimize the use of lethal weapons.
  • [E]nsure that disciplinary decisions are made by an independent decision-maker not in the affected person’s direct chain of command.”

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Abbott, on the other hand, suggested to Chile Today that a more structural change might be necessary, because “the situation that the police face today in Chile leads you to think that more than a reform, we are facing a re-foundation …. [Their] deep misconduct has a lot to do with their militarized, hierarchical character.”

Another important part is the training and learning programs for police officers: to reformulate recruitment and graduation requirements, as well as boosting “acknowledgment and protection of human rights.”

Nevertheless, regaining the public’s trust and support are crucial to solve the crisis,  according to Abbott, as the lack of trust in the institution and the grave resentments many Chileans developed during the crisis are major obstacles.

“[These changes] require enormous compromise and responsibility, not only from the police officers themselves, but from the exterior forces who can back and support such changes. Our police forces have lost considerable value by citizens, hence we need more precise mechanisms for the Chilean citizens to also get involved with this process; if not, it will be hard to rebuild a truly valued police force. A police institution that cannot be validated by its own citizens, is an institution bound to fail in its most basic duties and responsibilities”.

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Authorities Agree With Reform

Despite rejection of the earlier Amnesty report, authorities did welcome the suggestions from Human Rights Watch. After the release, National Prosecutor Jorge Abbott announced that “the use of force” by both the police and the military required revision, as reported by BioBioChile. In addition, he suggested that cameras inside police stations be reorganized to better record detainees in custody.

As reported elsewhere by BioBioChile, Coronel Karina Soza, from the Police Human Rights Department, said “the events of the last month have demonstrated the need to make profound reforms to police action aimed at better promotion and protection of human rights.”

She promised that, “during this period, our procedures have already been reformulated and limited in order to protect citizens and their legitimate right to demonstrate,” but admitted that “mistakes may have been made” and that, if so, they hurt the institution “and we do not want to repeat them.”

Soza added, “We take with great humility and responsibility the recommendations made by Human Rights Watch today, which have also been valued by the Government.”


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