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Focus on Latin America

October 2011

The Koban principle

PhotoJapanese and Brazilian police liaise

What do 17th century Japan and one of the world's 21st century megacities have in common?

A concept of community policing developed in those far off days is helping authorities in Sao Paulo, the sprawling Brazilian metropolis of nearly 20 million people, to reform a law enforcement system which in the past has been overwhelmed by soaring crime rates and deep public mistrust.

KOBAN is based on the idea of direct community policing. Small police units are stationed in neighborhoods and, after securing the trust of communities, can more effectively tackle problems ranging from providing emergency services or solving crimes to other assistance such as ‘lost and found’ or issuing directions.

The very first Koban, a simple security police box, was established in 1874 and today has become an integral and instantly recognized symbol of policing in Japan with around 6,000 local stations across the nation.

So successful has it become that JICA has ‘exported’ the concept to countries as far apart as Singapore, Indonesia and several South and Central American countries, including Brazil.

Sao Paulo state and its capital first introduced the Koban concept in 1997 and in the latest project which ends in 2011, Japanese police experts regularly visit Sao Paulo and local officials go to Japan for advanced training.

Nearly half of Brazil's 27 states have now embraced the idea as have nearby countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua.

Brazil needed all the help it could get. Along with its impressive economic growth in recent years the South American giant recorded equally ‘impressive’ crime statistics.

Runaway Murder Rate

PhotoA foot patrol in Sao Paulo

In Sao Paulo, 30.1 persons per 100,000 population were murdered in 2003, a figure five times higher than the American state of California.

In the two square-kilometer Vila Formosa section of the city, a 17-strong unit of Brazil's military police has been at work since 2008 establishing closer ties with 10,000 local city and small-scale industrial workers.

"Before, the population was afraid of the police. We had a very negative image," admits Koban leader Sgt. Adilson Ciriaco. "Today, we receive crime tips. Everyone knows us. We have become a friendly face."

The unit achieved a turn- around by routine foot patrols, neighborhood ‘door knocking’ and community- friendly activities such as helping the homeless and elderly, visiting schools, establishing communal vegetable gardens and printing a regular Koban news sheet.

"Thefts and robberies have decreased by 40% in the last two years," said Sgt. Ciriaco. "People come to talk to us, to tell us things. They are actively participating in community policing rather than running away from us."

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