During the many years my family and I have been in Spain, we’ve been fortunate to never have problems that required police help. Several times a year though, we’ve known someone who has needed to report a crime or had a serious problem and have had to help on several occasions. Pickpocketing, car theft, muggings, car accidents, or you’re just completely lost, with Spain’s three different police forces, it’s often difficult to figure out which police force to contact and who deals with which crime.
The Policia Municipal – No matter where you are in Spain, this is the Spanish police force you’re likely to see the most. The Policia Municipal, or Municipal Police, is a locally organized police force that some Spaniards also call the Policia Local.
From a particular town or a particular area, the Policia Municipal receive their orders from local governmental bodies and are the guys you go to for most smaller problems – petty theft, personal disputes, problems with specific storekeepers (if you feel like you’re being cheated), or simply if you’re in a new town and hopelessly lost. The Policia Municipal are also the police you may come across if you hire a rental car and are stopped for violating one of Spain’s many traffic laws.
On an out of town trip, my father was pulled over by a member of the Policia Municipal for driving with his lights on during the day time. Spanish police are quite strict about infractions like this, although sometimes they’re also used to pull over suspicious drivers who may be drunk or drug running. My father was stopped early on a Sunday morning, as the police were doing a ‘spot check’ looking for drunk drivers coming home from bars the night before.
You will often find though, in most areas, few of the Policia Municipal speak any English. The police officer who stopped my father managed to stumble out around 20 words of English, then realized it was a lost cause and waved us on. In fact, the police officer seemed surprised when my father wound down his car window and the officer realized he couldn’t speak more than 10 words of Spanish. Spanish friends also tell us, if you don’t speak any Spanish and the officer speaks no English, many of the Policia Municipal will just overlook a minor infraction, as it’s too difficult to communicate to you what you did wrong.
The Policia Municipal usually wear blue with white or light blue accents, with the style varying from region to region. They also carry guns. To contact them, call 092 in case of an emergency.
The Guardia Civil – These are the guys you’ll see all over Spain wearing green military-style uniforms and with a more military attitude than the Policia Municipal. In the past, the Guardia Civil had a bad reputation as they were the police force used by people like dictator General Franco to repress the Spanish people and take away their civil rights. In the past couple of decades their reputation has improved but most Spaniards will still tell you to avoid them unless you absolutely have no choice.
The Guardia Civil are the police you must report any kind of traffic accident to. They are also the police agency dealing with more serious crimes. Their main duties involve monitoring Spain’s roads and freeways for speeders and drunk drivers, they control Spain’s anti-drug units, they work in Spain’s prison system, they run the Coast Guard and they are the police you should report any suspected terrorist activity to if its on a national level. The Guardia Civil are also the police officers you are first likely to see when you enter Spain as they run the customs side of things, and you’ll often see them standing around in Spain’s airports near Immigration. If you’ve ever been to a Spanish embassy outside Spain, these are also the police officers guarding it.
On our last holiday in Spain, one of the elderly British women on our tour climbed a high hill outside town and fell and broke her ankle. Various hospitals and police forces were called but the main police force to deal with the situation were the Guardia Civil, who sent two police cars with three police officers and a Guardia Civil helicopter, so the woman could be brought to safety.
Do be aware though, if you’re on holiday in Spain and have any problems such as this requiring ambulances, police vehicles or, God forbid, a helicopter or Coast Guard boat, in many circumstances if your insurance doesn’t cover the cost, you will be billed for the service. So be careful about using it. The woman who fell on the hill ended up with a bill for more than $10,000, for the hour the Guardia Civil helicopter was in use. The Guardia Civil can be contacted at 062.
The Policia Nacional – If you spend any length of time in Spain, the Policia Nacional are the guys you’ll probably deal with the most. They are the officers who work in the Spanish agencies that issue Residence Cards (called ‘Residencias’ in Spain), ID paperwork and passports. They also work at the embassies in many of Spain’s cities. Many speak reasonable English, which is why foreigners living in Spain will often deal with the Policia Nacional first, as they’re more likely to be able to understand what the problem is. The Policia Nacional wear dark blue uniforms, often with dark blue baseball-style caps. More than anything, they’re the equivalent of the American FBI.
Should you be the unfortunate victim of a rape, street mugging or have your hotel room or apartment broken into and items stolen, the Policia Nacional are the police force who will deal with it. Terrorist activity on a local level should also be reported to the Policia Nacional.
As far as English language skills go, the Policia Nacional have better English skills than the Policia Municipal and most will understand and speak enough English to be able to help you. Some will also speak French, the third language Spaniards sometimes speak, beyond Spanish and English. It’s recommended though, if you have a serious problem in Spain and need to report it to the Policia Nacional, take a translator with you as you’ll be assured you’ll be understood.
The Policia Nacional are reachable by calling 091 in case of an emergency or terrorist threat.