I’ve been retired from urban policing for four years, yet still feel actively engaged in the issues that confront police officers. I follow local and national police issues and I am still fascinated by individual and group behavior.
Most cops with significant street experience become keen analysts of human nature and behavior over time. They become experts at human and situational assessment without a day of formal clinical experience, and their assessments take place in seconds rather than over a series of clinical appointments. It is a unique ability, and coupled with sound judgment and restraint, it is what makes police officers special in society. I have traveled extensively internationally and have learned that police insights are universal.
I have visited Colombia many times in the last few years. The Colombian people are some of the hardest working and friendliest people I’ve met in my travels, yet they have suffered greatly. Historically, Colombians have been exposed to extreme political and narco-violence, as well as significant street crime.
In Bogota during the 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was against the law to wear a motorcycle helmet in traffic because helmets hid the identities of the armed assassins, sicarios, who roamed the city on motorcycles. Women could not wear earrings on buses or in the street without fear of having their jewelry torn from their ears. It was necessary to attach your purse or handbag to a latch of your chair in bars and restaurants, and using a taxi was a complicated process of recording and reporting plate numbers and confirmation codes before entering the cab. Robberies, kidnapping and criminal justice system corruption were rampant, and Colombia was on the verge of becoming a failed state due to a weak central government and the proliferation and influence of the drug cartels.
Traditionally, Colombians could not rely on the police. Security, la vigilancia, was the pre-eminent theme in Colombian life. The private security industry that emerged to fill the void was multi-layered and omni-present. The security guard at the McDonald’s in the resort city of Cartagena carried a shotgun, but also helped clear tables. Hotels employed squads of plainclothes and uniformed guards. Even very small businesses pooled money to employ guards to patrol their block.
That climate has changed dramatically in the last 10 years, largely due to the courage and determination of Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. With American financial assistance from ‘Plan Colombia’ and U.S. State Department aid programs, Uribe has transformed Colombia into a stable society with a strong central government and a growing economy. With the financial aid, and Uribe’s personal fortitude, military and urban police training was increased and the urban security situation was greatly improved.
The Colombian criminal justice system was overhauled and law enforcement professionalism and training was emphasized. The major narcotics cartels have been shattered and the guerilla groups such as the FARC and the ELN have been largely marginalized. Today, Colombia is a vibrant, educated, and modern country with a thriving international and domestic investment climate.
On a recent visit to Pereira, Colombia, I was having a morning coffee at Café La Florestria in the business district adjacent to the cathedral. Pereira, population 450,000, is a thriving manufacturing city west of Bogota.
As I chatted with the barista, there was a commotion just outside the open door. The young woman ran to the front, looked down the sidewalk and ran back behind the bar, yelling to me in Spanish, “Watch out, Watch out!”
I got up from my table near the door and cautiously stepped outside. 20 feet to my left two farmers had squared off — each swinging a machete. If you’re from the countryside, carrying a machete into town is not a big deal, but this was a righteous sword fight taking place on a crowded street. People were running and screaming. I hated to waste a good cup of coffee, but it was time to go.
As I exited the cafe to the right, a man in a white polo shirt and khaki slacks walked calmly past me towards the fight. He approached the first combatant from the rear and placed him in a headlock. Simultaneously, he pulled a black revolver from his waistband and pointed it at the second suspect, who was about 6 feet away.
“Drop it! Drop it! Drop it!” he yelled at the second man, while restraining the first man by the neck. The free-swinging suspect seemed enraged at this intervention, and advanced on the man with the gun.
Expecting ‘shots fired’, I retreated back inside the café and braced for the inevitable.
No shots. The man in the polo shirt simply shuffled backwards with his restrained suspect in a sort of improvised salsa move.
“Drop it!” he repeated several more times as the attacker advanced.
The bizarre dance moved down the sidewalk. “What’s he waiting for?”
Just as the attacker prepared to lunge, two unarmed municipal police officers in green uniforms, approached the suspect from behind, each grabbing an arm, and wrestled him to the sidewalk. It was over. No shots, no injury. Both men were quickly escorted to the main square and packed into a police truck.
“Incredible!” I remarked to a man standing next to me on the sidewalk. “yes, very calmly”, he replied, complimenting the man in the polo shirt.
This incident lasted probably three minutes from start to finish and was professionally and heroically handled by an off-duty Pereira police officer moonlighting as a business district security guard. The guy acted with a cool head, bought time until his colleagues stationed in front of the cathedral could respond, and prevented a tragedy.
I don’t believe this scenario would have played out the same way in the past. The Colombian people and their security forces had been exposed to extreme levels of violence, and, over time, this exposure had affected their responses to crime and disorder. The poor and rich alike became victims of the poorly trained national and local police as well as the paramilitaries. I think that historically two extremes existed in Colombian policing, either indifference in response to crime, or unrestrained force in dealing with political opponents or criminals.
The Colombian transformation under Uribe is comprehensive. The commitment to improving the criminal justice system and abiding by the rule of law has had dramatic results on national and local law enforcement, and on the Colombian psyche.
I believe the Pereira officer’s instincts and restraint demonstrated a level of training and professionalism that police officers everywhere should aspire to reach. “Well done, my friend.”
Author Jeffrey Haire is a retired police officer from Torrance, Ca. with a Master’s degree in Clinical Psychology from Pepperdine University.