Portugal’s dual policing system

As we approach Safe Communities Portugal’s fifth anniversary, I recall our first public seminars in the Algarve, aimed at creating greater awareness of the work of the police.

One of the questions often asked was: what is the difference between the Guarda Nacional Republicana (GNR) and the Polícia de Segurança Pública (PSP)? Why does Portugal have both a civilian police force, namely the PSP, and a Gendarmerie (defined as a military component with jurisdiction in civil law enforcement), namely the GNR? This is a very good question and I know there are many who are still unaware of the differences between the two.


The 19th century was characterised by major police reform across Europe. As the century progressed, one of the most significant aspects of these reforms was how the adoption of new measures in many countries were increasingly influenced by what was happening elsewhere. Whether emulating or rebuffing foreign examples, knowledge about police systems in other countries played an increasing role in shaping reform projects.

In Portugal, 1867 saw police reform attain one of its most significant moments when new police forces were set up in Lisbon and Porto: the Polícia Civil, which was later expanded to all district capitals, as well as the failed attempt to establish a national gendarmerie.


The GNR is directly descended from the Royal Guard of the Police of Lisbon (Guarda Real da Polícia de Lisboa), which was created in 1801. It took as a model the French Gendarmerie (1791).

The GNR, created in 1911, is a paramilitary security force organised into a Special Corps of Troops. In peacetime, it is dependent upon the Ministry of Internal Affairs for the purposes of recruitment, administration and performance of duties arising from its general mission, and on the National Ministry of Defence for the purposes of standardisation and regulation of the military doctrine, arms and equipment.

The GNR’s mission is to guarantee the maintenance of public order, within its area of jurisdiction, exercised mainly through the policing of all areas in the country except for the larger cities which come under the jurisdiction of the PSP. GNR personnel are soldiers, have a military ranking system and subject to military law.


The PSP, formed in 1867, is responsible for ensuring democratic legality, safeguarding internal security and the rights of its citizens in accordance with the Constitution and laws of Portugal. It is commanded by a national director responsible to the Minister of Internal Affairs.

Its duties, defined in law, are diverse, including protecting key points, diplomatic protection, security of major events, traffic policing, private security and firearms licensing, crime prevention, investigation of crime and airport security. It is responsible for the policing of all the airports as well as the larger cities.

Both the GNR and PSP include in their roles: “Ensuring public order and tranquillity, and the security and protection of persons and property; and to prevent crime in general, in coordination with other security forces and services.”

Areas of responsibility

The GNR covers around 96% of Portugal’s land area, including medium-size towns, villages and rural areas. The PSP cover the remaining 4% namely the main cities, Lisbon, Porto and Faro, and major towns, including in the Algarve, such as Portimão, Tavira, Lagos, Vila Real de Santo António and Olhão. In terms of population, it is roughly an equal split between the GNR and PSP.

Where matters can often become confusing is in the larger towns; for example, Portimão. It is difficult to determine where the geographic division between the GNR and PSP lies, as often a PSP road patrol may extend into a GNR area for the sake of efficiency and vice versa.

Differences between the GNR and PSP

Firstly, the GNR is military and the PSP civilian. Training also varies. The GNR are more military focused, whereas the PSP is more police orientated. Their procedures can also vary in delivering basically the same service. One reason for this is that there is little cross-training between the two organisations and sharing of best practices and experience, resulting in lack of standardisation and consistency in delivering front-line services.

I find it sometimes depressing that the excellent ideas and initiatives in one service (some which meet the highest of standards in any police force) are simply not shared.

It is also frustrating when I frequently hear from commanders that there is a lack of money for adequate patrols due to lack of fuel, an ageing vehicle fleet or lack of manpower, when a better structured and more efficient policing system could go a long way in overcoming this.


Concerning the competencies of each organisation, whereas some are unique to each – for example, the PSP are responsible for diplomatic protection, the security of the airports, the regulation of the private security industry, and the GNR have GIPS (the firefighters and rescue unit) and SEPNA (the environmental police) – it soon becomes obvious that both have the same competencies in many areas of policing.

This is best illustrated in terms of day-to-day policing, e.g. patrolling the streets, special programmes such as for schools, the elderly, commerce, interventions in case of disorder and conducting criminal investigations.

Having two law enforcement agencies undertaking similar policing roles results in a massive duplication and waste of resources. For example, most of the large towns under the responsibility of the PSP have two divisional police stations, one for the PSP for the town itself and the other for the GNR to police the surrounding area. This means two commanders and a duplication of logistical services supporting those police stations.

At the district level (one level higher), the same applies with two district headquarters for the Algarve, one for the GNR and the other for the PSP, both in Faro city centre. Multiply this by 18 districts in Portugal and perhaps a hundred towns where the foregoing applies, then the extent of the problem becomes apparent.

In short, it is a structure of policing which is inefficient and extremely wasteful in resources, and does not facilitate ease of coordination.

The way forward

It may be surprising that many in the GNR and PSP fully agree with the above and that there should be simply one police service. However, the big question, of course, is which organisation should it be and then the age-old question of relinquishing responsibility and power.

This is not easy to resolve, but if the situation continues, you and I are paying heavily in supporting an inefficient policing system. The money saved, which some estimate could be hundreds of millions of euros per year, could be spent on better equipping the police, better pay and more deployment on the streets.

There is tremendous pride of service both in the GNR and PSP, staff are constantly providing the best service they can with inadequate resources available and they deserve much, much more.

Government needs to address this issue through structural reform and give Portugal the quality police service it richly deserves.

By David Thomas
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David Thomas is a former Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong Police, consultant to INTERPOL and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In October 2011 he founded Safe Communities Algarve an on-line platform here in the Algarve to help the authorities and the community prevent crime. It is now registered as Associação SCP Safe Communities Portugal, the first national association of its type in Portugal, with a new website launched in May 2015. He can be contacted at [email protected], or on 913045093 or at