For the last seven years, Dr. Phillip Lyons has been working with law enforcement officers in Central America to teach them the basics of community policing as a strategy in their efforts to combat gang violence plaguing the region.
Under the auspices of the U.S. Department of State, Dr. Lyons works with the St. Petersburg College’s Center for Public Safety Innovation in Florida and the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador to deliver weeklong courses on an “Introduction to Community Policing” and “Community Policing: From Theory to Practice.” He has taught police officers from Belize, Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama, but for the last several years he has worked exclusively with officials from El Salvador, currently, the homicide capital of the world, largely as a result of gang activity.
“If we can change the way police approach and conceptualize their communities, we do have an opportunity to affect change,” said Dr. Lyons, Dean of the College of Criminal Justice and Director of the George J. Beto Criminal Justice Center. “The chief reason I like working in El Salvador is that in the U.S., community policing is so advanced with capable, competent, and caring officers and lots of resources, whereas in a place like El Salvador, which has so much poverty, a little investment in training and technical assistance goes a long way.”
Dr. Lyons served as Executive Director of the Texas Regional Center for Policing Innovation, one of about 17 centers in the country that was funded by the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services to provide training and technological assistance to local police agencies. The Central American project is part of an effort by the U.S. Department of State to support democratic policing in the region and combat the MS-13 and other gangs that began with immigrants who settled in Los Angeles, but were deported and send back to their homeland.
Community policing in El Salvador is a lot different from such efforts in the U.S. Although community policing typically focuses on developing partnerships between police and communities to prioritize and respond to public safety and quality of life concerns, in developing countries, like El Salvador, the obstacles and challenges have little to do with policing per se and are more about meeting basic human needs.
“When the community does not have water or sewer systems, it is hard to engage people in collaborative policing,” said Dr. Lyons. “When the people are surrounded by homicides and are concerned just with their daily safety, it is hard to get them involved. And when poverty and limited economic opportunity forces parents to leave their children behind to find work in another country, the kids need to belong to someone, so gangs fill the void.”
When he first began working in El Salvador, police were attempting to tackle crimes, such as gang initiations, homicides, sexual assaults, and domestic violence. Over the years, it became apparent that it is more productive to work on the root causes of the problem and not the symptoms, Dr. Lyons said.
Because of collaborative partnerships created by community policing, police can become a catalyst for effort to improve communities, such as collecting trash, building roads, and establishing water systems. To combat gang problem, police are targeting students in danger of dropping out of school and trying to make schools safer for those who remain.
“The collaborative nature of the efforts provides the police with the tools and resources, through others, to help solve the underlying issues and not to add to the problem,” said Dr. Lyons.