COVID-19 presents a unique challenge for police agencies around the globe. They must find ways to ensure officer safety while conducting community patrols and remaining accessible to citizens. At the same time, they face quarantines, limited access to government facilities, and social distancing measures that can discourage people from reporting crimes.
In Honduras, the nationwide police agency was already involved in an effort to improve community relations when the pandemic inspired a new way for officers to serve as helpers. The Honduras Model Police Precinct (MPP) Project is funded by the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Anti-Narcotics and Law Enforcement, and is implemented by RTI International. Building on the experiences of a similar project in Guatemala, the Honduras MPP team is enhancing public safety and security in the three largest cities in Honduras: Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and La Ceiba.
We were in our second year of implementing MPP in Honduras when the country saw its first COVID-19 cases. Honduras has now seen more than 55,000 confirmed cases and nearly 1,700 associated fatalities.
Concerned about the community impacts of violence and criminal activities during the pandemic, RTI has closely monitored the situation in Central America. Our research in Guatemala has shown a steady increase of gender-based violence reports made to 911 emergency lines during the outbreak. During the same period, health officials have collected fewer reported incidents of abuse involving children and young people. As a result of quarantines and other travel restrictions, in-person reporting of crimes to the police in both Guatemala and Honduras has declined steeply compared to same time periods last year, according to unpublished USAID project reports. These concerns led us to think about innovative strategies that would increase police visibility and accessibility in the communities where we work in Honduras with the intent of promoting trust in the police and encouraging victims to report crimes.
Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the Honduras MPP Project actively encouraged community outreach activities by the Honduran National Police including such events as “coffee with the police,” crime prevention activities, community surveys, and demonstration activities. All of these activities have since been suspended in an effort to reduce mass gatherings and control the spread of the virus. Instead, RTI developed a new outreach program with the Honduras National Police (HNP) to deliver bags of groceries to citizens living in economically vulnerable, high-risk communities in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, La Ceiba, and La Lima in areas where the MPP work is targeted. The outreach activity is known as “Bolsas Comunitarias,” or community bags.
The RTI project team is responsible for coordinating the procurement of the groceries which include staples such as rice, sugar, flour, pasta, and some hygiene items such as toilet paper, bleach, and disinfectants. The Honduran National Police assemble the bags and deliver the supplies door-to-door in the most economically depressed areas in the communities where they work. With each stop, the police engage with the recipient to document the delivery of the supplies. Each bag includes a card that invites recipients to call or text the RTI staff for a brief follow-up survey regarding their interaction with police.
In the first wave of deliveries, June 23-29, the police delivered 360 bags of groceries. Just over one-fifth of recipients (20.8%) voluntarily followed up by text or phone call to offer their reflections of the experience. Once contacted, RTI staff would follow-up to conduct an interview by phone. Of the 56 completed surveys, the response was especially positive and appreciative. Over half (56.0%) reported that their economic situation was bad or very bad and that the groceries made a significant impact on their well-being. Only five of the respondents were employed at the time of the interview, and only one of these was employed in the formal economy.
The primary objective of this activity was to increase the likelihood that victims of crime would make a report to police. The convenience methods of the survey are biased towards those with the ability to read the card and towards those who have a cell phone to make the follow-up contact. Also, there is a self-selection bias based on those choosing to offer comments. Despite these limitations, the respondents interviewed appreciated the outreach effort and 92.0% believed this activity was a service activity that the police should be doing and 98.3% said this activity improved their perceptions of the police.
Trust in the police in Honduras is fragile, but the Bolsas Communitarias activity generated a very positive response. Nearly all respondents – 91.5 percent – said they felt the activity was an important step toward increasing the community’s sense of security and trust toward the police. The same percentage said activities like this would make them more likely to report crime.
Police outreach efforts during the COVID-19 crisis are critical for community safety. The groceries reassure residents that police are interested in their well-being. Perhaps most importantly, the increased police accessibility helps to build trust that will undoubtedly outlast the quarantines and travel restrictions. The Embassy has prioritized these activities, based on the preliminary evaluation results, and it seems likely this program will be expanded into other Honduran communities.