The Complexities of Violence: Self-Care and Policing in El Salvador

For decades, El Salvador has struggled with pervasive crime and violence, earning it the unenviable spot as the country with the highest homicide rate in the world. While recently, official statistics indicate a drop in overall violence, there are still shockingly high spikes, such as a period last spring when over 80 murders were committed in just five days.

Designated to protect civilians, El Salvadoran police are constantly exposed to violence, both as citizens themselves and in the line of duty. From job-related violence, such as confronting armed robbery or receiving death threats, to experiencing violence in their upbringing, police are often stuck in survival mode. More than 500 El Salvadoran police officers have been killed during the last 10 years, and 145 police officers have died by suicide since 1994, this includes 11 in the last four months alone. Stress, alcoholism, and family problems are common.

Given these pressing challenges, Checchi Consulting implemented the USAID-funded Justice Sector Strengthening Activity (JSSA) to improve community policing in 25 municipalities experiencing high crime rates. Checchi has been tracking public perceptions of crime and victimization in El Salvador since 2015. Surveys and other inquiries uncovered that police officers suffer from vicarious trauma from witnessing so much violence on the job.

Moreover, past individual traumatic events in their lives are also significant and trigger behaviors that affect police performance, including excessive use of force. In addition, rigid perceptions about masculinities and identity as police officers creates a stigma around mental health and seeking help. All of this revealed that El Salvadoran police officers need instruction in self-care and trauma-informed policing, which are valuable tools to improve social cohesion by addressing trauma at both the individual and community level.

In response, Checchi worked with police departments to conduct a series of self-care workshops as an initial intervention to encourage individuals to change values about mental health and seek support. Workshops also included extensive trainings on proper use of force, promoting the application of trauma-informed policing strategies to ensure respect of human rights, and the creation of a use of force manual.

Trainings on community policing focused on long-term relationships within the community and included problem-solving, proactive approaches to meet community needs, civil society strategic partners, and citizen accountability. Participants learned how police-sponsored community engagement activities (such as community meetings, workshops, and recreational events) strengthen residents’ trust in the police, while increased patrolling and community cleaning help mitigate risk factors, limit criminal opportunities, and reduce violence.

Over the course of the trainings, Checchi discovered a degree of past trauma among the officers that manifested as PTSD, anxiety, and depression, issues too difficult to address through self-care workshops alone. The program quickly pivoted to offer referrals to local social workers and psychologists who could provide the long-term help participants needed. This represents a significant shift because acknowledging a problem and accepting help are major barriers to overcoming these health issues.

One of the major limitations to consistently receive counseling is the pressure to continue patrolling, which curbs opportunities to receive long-term support. In addition, alcoholism and family problems require comprehensive interventions that are difficult to address within the police alone. And although the National Civilian Police has increased the number of social workers and psychologists, they are not enough to respond to the needs of the more than 23,000 police officers in the force.

Said one police officer who participated in the workshops, “After years of resistance to self-care, now these techniques have become a more commonly used tool. Some opposition still persists because the fight against stigma is challenging, but there are significant improvements. We are opening new paths.”

More and more police chiefs recognize the importance and advantages of creating opportunities for self-care among their officers. They have witnessed the positive changes in attitude from those that attend self-care sessions and now accept that these techniques are effective.

As a result of increased awareness, in January 2021 the National Civilian Police adopted a new holistic integral health policy aimed at improving the wellbeing of police officers. This important new policy calls for additional self-care workshops, outlines internal procedures for identifying and reporting potential suicide cases, mandates an examination of masculinities and human rights in suicide prevention workshops, and calls for police trainings on domestic violence, alcoholism, and stress management.

In a country where gang members far outnumber police, El Salvadoran officers can already become overwhelmed with managing crime. Since the emergence of COVID-19, police contend with the combined effects of the pandemic itself and gangs’ shifting tactics in response to quarantine. If left unchecked, these resulting pressures have the potential to exacerbate already high rates of stress and suicide among National Civilian Police members. While there are many unanswered questions, what is abundantly clear is the need for sustained interventions that give police officers the tools they need to more effective care for themselves and those in the communities they serve.

J. Javier Agosto was a Senior Technical Advisor at Checchi and Company, a wholly owned subsidiary of Dexis Consulting Group that has now been consolidated. He has more than 20 years of experience providing support to USAID-funded justice sector and citizen security programs in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Photo courtesy of USAID/El Salvador