Crime rates in Costa Rica have never been higher, and the crime wave has left most government agencies that work to contain crime in a difficult position, competing among themselves for increased funding and more personnel.
Not least among these is the Public Security Ministry, which includes the National Police Force. This force is struggling to patrol the streets with just over half the number of police officers the country requires, according to experts.
It’s a struggle not only against criminals, but one marred by a public misconception that is often fed by real misdeeds.
Corruption haunts the force. In the first six months of 2009, 120 members of the National Police were brought under investigation for corruption, with charges ranging from selling drugs to homicide, according to the daily La Nación.
But the problems are endemic in a system still stuck in the past, and that is finding it difficult to adapt to new, stricter forms of functioning, said Paul Chávez, a criminology and security professor at the StateUniversity at a Distance (UNED).
Meanwhile, politicians have offered swift solutions that appeal to voters but that don’t address the real problem, he said. What is most needed, experts say, is fundamental change to help the Public Security Ministry attract smart, loyal and ambitious officials who will work within their communities.
Low education requirements and poor salaries are only two of the basic problems facing the National Police, said Chávez. The average salary of a national policeman is ?350,000 per month (about $600), according to Chávez, who worked as an adviser to former Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos from 2002 to 2006.
“It doesn’t mater if you are hiring more policeman at that salary, because who are you going to attract?” Chávez asked, before answering his own question: “People who have nothing better to do.”
The National Police force is growing – albeit slowly. President Oscar Arias had promised to increase the National Police by 4,000 officers before he leaves office next year.
He recently met, and even topped, that promise by 16 officers, according to numbers freshly printed by Public Security Minister Janina del Vecchio. The National Police currently number around 12,000 officers, del Vecchio said.
However, both she and Chávez agree that there should be close to 20,000 officers on the force.
A New Paradigm
Although del Vecchio is criticized often for her inexperience with police work – she is a math professor and educator by trade – she appears to be on top of the idea that the force needs to change.
The Public Security Ministry’s budget has almost doubled since 2006, to around $180 million annually, and the length of the basic training course for police has been increased from two to six months. Del Vecchio also published a directive aimed at maintaining police ethics and its sense of mission beyond the change in governments.
“To be sustainable, this project should be a new paradigm for police action,” del Vecchio said. “to pay to train more police, for more and better police who have to go to an academy to learn the basics for six months, and who later have to return to the academy to take intermediate courses in order to be promoted, so that they can pursue a career in an established police force.”
The National Police have been graduating close to 800 officers yearly since 2006, del Vecchio said, despite its high cost. Training officers for six months – on top of paying a salary of close to $430 each month during training – carries a price tag of close to $3,500 per enrolled trainee.
Unfortunately, the officers trained with public funds often go elsewhere after a couple of years, Chávez said.
“It’s a lot of money that the ministry spends on (training), because people keep leaving,” he said.
Gerald Mora worked as a police officer with the National Police for six years before leaving, tired and downtrodden. He described his time with the National Police as filled with “a lot of bad experiences,” and he felt the job they performed was “incomplete.”
A little over a year ago, Mora left the National Police for the booming private security sector, which has three times more registered officers than the National Police.
Like a growing number in his field, Mora was already trained by the government. The pay is similar, he said, but they aren’t required to work extreme hours – or if they are, they’re paid extra for it.
Many residents hold Mora’s perception of the police force, and feel the job performed by the police is unreliable, Chávez said. Part of the problem – beyond the blatant lack of police officers – is the general structure of the force, he said.
In addition to the normal duties police perform on the streets, they perform administrative tasks for the courts, Chávez said.
They deliver judicial notifications on alimony arrangements and notify subjects of hearings about court dates to make sure they arrive.
“They perform duties that have no relationship at all with protection, public security, preventing crime,” he said.
Also, since there is no military in Costa Rica, the police watch the borders and guard foreign embassies. Factor in that the police work in three shifts, and the numbers dwindle down to maybe 2,000 police officers watching over the country at any given moment, Chávez said.
Del Vecchio said she is trying to improve the situation, though the ministry lacks the funding to heavily increase the police presence.
So, instead of immediately placing more police on the streets, the ministry is investing in a system of cameras. San José will soon have 300 cameras watching over the streets, and Limón will have 50 to 100 cameras, she said. They will be monitored at a crisis center in San José, from which calls to the appropriate police stations will be made to respond to emergencies.
“With this management center acting as an information base, we will have the possibility to put at least two police officers near each camera with their (Global Positioning Systems) and with their radios, so that they can respond in real time to emergencies,” del Vecchio said.
The directive issued by the public security minister also calls for a stronger relationship between the police and the communities they try to protect. Del Vecchio said she wants the police to be a known resource within the community – one where they know the residents and the residents know them.