Police Misconduct: Evaluating Police Reform in the U.S. and Honduras

Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras, is pictured introducing Decreto No. 21-2016 to Honduras’ legislature in April of 2016. https://flic.kr/p/pcctHo

Police misconduct is a controversial topic that periodically dominates headlines in both developed and developing nations, yet aside from these occasional reminders, such as the 2015 police riots in the United States, the topic is largely ignored by those indirectly affected until a new and outrageous story breaks, leaving many individuals, most predominantly minorities, vulnerable to the very people who are supposed to protect them. Due to their ostensible role as peacekeepers, police officers are often allotted large amounts of unchecked power with very minimal consequences, making them immune and unanswerable to the law or any other institution. In cases when officers do receive disciplinary action, they often evade consequences through internal protective measures, such as unions or links to organized crime organizations, that are primarily concerned with protecting their own as opposed to citizens. Contrary to current practice, police forces must be treated as  governmental agencies that are constantly developing and evolving in the face of new challenges and issues affecting the industry, as opposed to an untouchable and stagnant entity that is above the law and the state.

Police reform depends on a variety of factors, such as political stability and socioeconomic conditions, but scholars generally agree that Community-Oriented Policing (COP) is the most promising solution due to its focus on prevention of crime rather than repression. The idea behind the COP model is to actively engage citizens in the security of their communities through  education and community involvement, both of which aim to cultivate positive relationships between citizens and officers. The model also incorporates non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to assist in conflict mediation between officers and citizens, ensuring that officers are held directly accountable to their communities. While the ideals of COP are relatively straightforward, their implementation is complicated by systemic corruption, thus requiring a complete restructuring of police forces to establish comprehensive standards along with a governing body to continually reinforce and revaluate these standards based on changing circumstances. The evaluation of police reform in both Honduras and the U.S. provides a unique look at the various stages of police reform, with Honduras as a model for the initial stage of restructuring and the U.S. for the reassessment and development of this system post-implementation.  

Police reform’s primary concern in Honduras is the elimination of corruption and the repairment of damaged relationships between citizens and officials. Honduras, however, is one of the most volatile areas in the world, possessing one of the highest murder rates for a non-warring country of 90 homicides for every 100,000 citizens. A large portion of Honduras’ crime can be traced back to transnational organized crime groups that control the country’s economy and politics, including the police force. Recent investigations have directly linked at least 40% of Honduras’ police force to these organized crime groups, with officers perpetrating violent acts of homicide, sexual assault, and other drug related crimes. Even officers not directly linked to these groups contribute to police misconduct, as Honduras’ convoluted legal system prioritizes upper class citizens over lower class citizens and minorities, such as women and LGTBQ+ individuals. Upper class citizens, however, are not immune to police misconduct, as the murder of Rafael Alejandro, son of the president of Honduras’ national university, revealed in 2011. As opposed to other countries, such as the U.S., where police misconduct primarily affects minorities from lower socioeconomic backgrounds, police misconduct in Honduras is more universal and less-selective, leaving citizens vulnerable and unprotected in an already turbulent region.

In April of 2016, President Juan Orlando Hernandez declared a state of emergency regarding national security, introducing Decreto No. 21-2016 to establish a Special Commission to initiate the daunting task of police reform in Honduras. The Special Commission was entrusted with evaluating the suitability of the national police force, establishing an oversight and supervision mechanism through the Ministry of National Security to purge corruption from the top down, and referring all removed persons under suspicion of engaging in illicit activity to the attorney general’s office. Since its initiation in 2016, the Special Commission has removed 88 officers, ranging from Comisonados generales (General Commissioners) to comisarios (general officers), suspended 17 officers, and accepted the voluntary resignation of five officers—in total about 40% of the police force. The Special Commission is currently  working to address both structural and operational as well, which includes establishing training and certification measures, reevaluating investigation tactics, hiring new officers, and implementing an independent governing agency to promote long-term sustainability.

In contrast to Honduras, police reform in the U.S. is focused on the reevaluation and modification of the established COP system based on recent developments. Originally adapted in the 1970s in response to escalating tensions between officers and citizens—predominantly minorities—the COP model sought to more actively engage communities in order to repair these relationships; however, recent events in Anaheim point to persisting tensions stemming from officer violence and implicit bias, specifically against black citizens. In response to these accusations, officers tend to cite the study of Roland G. Fryer, a black citizen himself, which concluded that police are not more likely to use lethal force on minorities. Fryer, however, points out that this study is unrepresentative of the realities in the U.S. because it lacks a sufficient data sample, as it only evaluates data from three precincts due to department reluctance to release data. Fryer also points to a lack of national data on police activity in the U.S., which should concern citizens. In 1994 Congress attempted to pass the Crime Control Act, which would task the FBI with collecting and publishing data on police activities; however, the Police Officer’s Union lobbied against this act and won, making the release of this data optional.  A reluctance to track national data not only provides officers with unchecked power, leaving citizens, specifically minorities, vulnerable, but it also fails to take a preventative stance on potential issues regarding police conduct, allowing tensions to rise until citizens reach a breaking point, which is exactly what happened in Ferguson and Baltimore.

In response to rising tensions across the nation, the U.S. Justice Department initiated a series of investigations and reforms to address systemic failings, the most notable example being The Civil Rights Division’s Pattern and Practice Police Reform initiative that began in 1994. Like the Special Commission in Honduras, the initiative began as an investigatory commission to evaluate systemic misconduct and specific cases of alleged officer misconduct. In contrast to Honduras’ Special Commission, however, The Civil Rights Division’s initiative is a branch of the Justice Department, providing the entity with legal authority to both open formal investigations and prosecute offences. In addressing alleged cases of police misconduct, the division opens a formal case through a federal investigation that begins with a generalized evaluation of the department in question. If offences are found, a subsequent public investigation is opened against suspected individuals, which is followed by the drafting of reform agreements for the offending department if offences are discovered. If the department or accused individuals refuse to comply with the proposed reforms, a lawsuit is brought against the offending parties. The initiative’s primary concern is institutional reform, which is why along with addressing specific allegations, the department is also concerned with establishing new standards and practices to correct and address past issues while preventing future incidents.

Like many other social issues, one of the largest obstacles facing police reform is minority relations with societal institutions, which can be traced back to the days of colonization. While both Honduras and the U.S. have taken promising steps towards repairing these relationships, both nations still have a long road ahead of them. Honduras, however, presents a slightly more optimistic outlook, since its wide-reaching police misconduct and corruption can be addressed through large-scale institutional reform. In contrast, police misconduct in the United States is more localized and specific, primarily affecting minorities. These instances of police misconduct are ultimately rooted in prejudicial attitudes and misconceptions at an individual level that cannot necessarily be addressed by large-scale policy changes. Regardless of the difficulties faced by each country, both nations must focus on returning the police force to its original role as a protective agency for all citizens.