BOGOTA, Colombia (AP) – Colombian President Ivan Duque announced reforms by the country’s police force on Monday to improve accountability and reduce human rights violations after weeks of protests in which officials were accused of killing at least two dozen demonstrators.
In a courtyard flanked by police officers, Duque said the government would set up a human rights directorate reporting to the country’s police chief and led by a retired colonel.
The new department will collect complaints from citizens and produce two reports on human rights issues each year, Duque said.
In addition, civil servants and junior workers will be obliged to take a new course on human rights, and the police will tighten sanctions against abusers. The country’s mobile insurgency command, which was involved in many of the violent actions against demonstrators during the May demonstrations, is also facing a new course in terms of human rights.
The reforms come as human rights groups criticized the Colombian police for using excessive force during the major protests that began on April 28 and lasted until mid-June.
According to Human Rights Watch, there is credible evidence linking police officers to the deaths of 25 protesters shot with firearms or killed with mass control devices such as tear gas canisters. In a report released in June, the organization also pointed out that at least one protester had been beaten to death by police and recommended that the government subordinate the police to the Ministry of the Interior in order to increase civilian oversight.
Currently, the Colombian Police Department is under surveillance by the Ministry of Defense, and officers who commit crimes while on duty are often tried in military courts. The reforms Duque announced do not go as far as those proposed by Human Rights Watch and other international organizations such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. But the president said they were part of a “healthy effort” to improve the police force.
The government also announced that at least 11,000 officers working on patrols in the neighborhood will be required to wear body cameras.
The country’s police force will also swap traditional green uniforms for navy blue uniforms to underscore their role as a civilian force. The new uniforms show each officer’s license number and a QR code that can also be used by citizens to identify officers.
During the armed conflict in Colombia, the police were often used to combat drug traffickers and rebel groups, and sometimes participated in joint operations with the army. Experts believe that this type of training has made them more violent towards protesters, who sometimes attacked the police with stones and homemade bombs.
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