Panama’s police force is a lot less intimidating now than in the days of the military dictatorship. Law-abiding visitors are unlikely to have any bad dealings with the police. In fact, Panama is so eager to protect tourists and give them a positive impression of the country there’s a whole detachment of police officers, known as the policía de turismo (tourist police), dedicated to watching out for them in Panama City. They’re generally bicycle cops, easy to spot in their khaki uniforms with short pants. They’re most visible in the Casco Viejo section of the city, where the force is headquartered.
Transit police sometimes crack down on certain offenses on busy stretches of road. They’re usually on the lookout for speeders, those making illegal turns, drivers talking on cell phones, and so on. Drivers signal that the transit police are staking out an area by flashing headlights at each other. I sometimes flash lights to slow down reckless drivers even when no cops are around.
The police sometimes set up roadblocks to check drivers’ licenses and registrations. This is normal and no cause for alarm. If a police officer stops you, be unfailingly polite and friendly. Be prepared to hand over your passport and driver’s license. Police officers rarely speak English, which some use to their advantage when stopped for a traffic violation, feigning an inability to speak Spanish in the hopes the officer will lose patience and just wave the driver on instead of handing out a ticket.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition