Toward Transformed Policing: A Challenge To The North American Church

Tegucigalpa, Honduras is a beautiful but loud and sprawling capital with green and gold hills rising above a hodgepodge of mostly cinderblock buildings. In juxtaposition with its beauty, Tegus has a homicide rate more than 15 times that of the US, ranking it among the deadliest cities in the world. Why is this? Among other factors, one key explanation is poor and compromised policing. A group of Christians in Honduras who have recognized this issue are confronting the broken police system through unique political engagement with the government. 

Carlos Hernandez, Omar Rivera, Rev. Alberto Solórzano, and Rev. Jorge Machado, four Christian leaders involved with the Association for a More Just Society, serve on a commission charged with transforming and cleaning up the 14,000 person police force.

They are encouraging law enforcement to work toward the common good in Honduras. They understand that for the police to do this, they must provide for the safety of all in the jurisdiction — protecting all from injustice and deprivations of life, while protecting liberty and the fruits of Hondurans’ labor. Protecting communities is a demanding calling. At their very best, police officers are brave and uncompromising servants of the common good.

The commissioners recognize that Jesus’ proclaimed mission on Earth was to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed and so they put a strong emphasis on the law enforcement’s service to those particular individuals. In Honduras, the policing system has failed to protect the vast majority of the population, especially the poor. In fact, police have primarily served the elite, the powerful, and criminals.  

In Honduras, the policing system has failed to protect the vast majority of the population, especially the poor.

In 2009, taking orders from now-extradited drug trafficker Wilter Blanco, top police generals ordered and carried out a hit on a leading anti-narcotics officer. Later in 2011, they murdered his second in command. Police officers have intimidated and shot activists who try to protect their land from mining exploitation. Additionally, officers have provided service weapons to both of the largest gangs in the country. In short, the law enforcement had aligned with corrupt and criminal interests.

From afar, the Honduran police force might seem like a lost cause, but Omar, Carlos, Jorge, and Alberto are hopeful and pragmatic. The commission has already taken concrete steps to transform the force. There are four animating principles that define the commission’s work.

1. CIVILIAN-LED REFORM

The Honduran government has tried for years to clean up its force. What has become clear over the years is that the government is incapable of leading an effort free from the influence of special interests. The government has spent almost 10 million dollars since 2012, and only 227 corrupt police officers were fired. As a part of this commission, these civil society leaders have the authority to make personnel decisions. Because they represent the interests of Honduran citizens, they are in a unique position to make fair decisions about personnel management. This contrasts with the narrow interests of politicians or police officers who benefit from the status quo.

2. FIRING CORRUPT AND INEPT OFFICERS 

The success of the civilian-led commission is clear: almost 3,000 police officers have been fired and the commission hasn’t received a dime from the government. There is a recognition by the commission that there are many good officers on the force, but the policing system has become corrupted by powerful elites, criminals, and their high-level contacts inside the force. Firing police has been the main focus of the reform so far. The commission has targeted firings at the top of the police structure, firing six of the nine police generals, allowing a new generation of police leadership to set up a completely new structure and system of incentives. Additionally, the commission has so far petitioned the Honduran Attorney General to investigate and prosecute 455 police officers for crimes.

3. DEMILITARIZATION

In response to the high levels of crime and homicide, the Honduran National Congress passed a bill in 2013 creating the Military Police for Public Order. This extreme measure has alarmed international human rights entities who have called for the removal of the military from policing functions as soon as possible. Underpinning this reform process is the understanding that a functioning civilian police force is needed to send the military back to the barracks.

4. IMPROVING POLICE EDUCATION 

Some officers joke that the education system is woefully inadequate: You run for a month or so, learn how to shoot a gun, and then you’re thrown onto the streets with a smile and a wave. For years, a Honduran only needed an elementary education to become a police officer. Now, officers must have graduated from high school. New officers undergo a year-long training program as opposed to the three-month program that was previously the standard. The new education curriculum emphasizes community policing and creating a culture of respect for human rights and recognizes the lack of trust that Hondurans currently have in the institution.

It is hard to overstate the difficulty of implementing these changes in Honduras. These brave leaders have all received death threats, and Rev. Machado survived an attempt on his life. They are challenging the interests of some of the most powerful and corrupt in Honduran society, but have an unshakeable faith that God is calling them to do justice despite the circumstances.

Even though the U.S. context is much different, we would be wise to follow their commitment to police work rooted in the idea of public justice and established for the poor and vulnerable. Policing in the U.S. has a severe problem. Police violence has led to all too many deaths of our Black brothers and sisters, and the families of these victims rarely see justice. Considering the brave work of these Hondurans, we should ask ourselves as North American Christians how we can respond to policing problems in our own context. Here are four suggestions that many in the United States are advocating for and that reflect some of the same changes that Hondurans are working towards:

Civilian-led reform: Advocate for strong independent civilian commissions that have the power to investigate and resolve complaints against police officers. Many kinds of commissions exist, so active engagement with a specific police department should determine what kind of commission is appropriate.

Firing corrupt and inept officers: Carry out independent investigations in all cases where civilians are killed or seriously injured.

Demilitarization: Pass local laws that prevent municipal police forces with a “pattern and practice” of discriminatory policing from purchasing military grade weapons and requiring high-ranking officers to determine the deployment of SWAT teams only in emergency situations.

Police education: Introduce anti-bias training and regular shoot/don’t shoot bias testing.

You don’t have to go all the way to Honduras to see thoughtful Christians fighting for policing in service of the common good. People like the Rev. William Barber II are leading very different, but similarly important movements in the United States for comparable ends. But let us also be challenged and inspired by the Honduran Christians who are audaciously working to transform a police force that has been co-opted by narrow interests for far too long.

-Niko Aberle, an Oregonian, is a recent graduate of Whitworth University in underrated Spokane, Washington. This means he likes things like coffee, rain, cycling, and debating which northwestern city will be overrun with yuppies next. He currently lives in Tegucigalpa, Honduras — another underrated city with excellent cycling and coffee. There, he works as a Research and Communications Fellow with the Association for a More Just Society, a Christian organization dedicated to government transparency and public safety.