People are often confused about the Police in Spain as there are in fact three main police forces, all with different roles but sometimes with an element of cross-over. All police are armed and should always be treated with respect.
1. Municipal Police or Policia
Local You will find the Policía Local in every town and they work under the direction of the Town Halls or ayuntamientos. They patrol the streets in white or blue cars and sometimes on motor scooters. You will recognise them thanks to their blue uniforms. Their job is to deal with the lesser crimes of parking infringements and civil disturbances as well as local laws and traffic control. They are to be seen driving around towns late at night as they also protect property. Generally they are on good terms with their local community but it is always wise to recognise their authority, and to be polite when coming across them.
2. National Police or Policia Nacional
You will find them in larger towns and cities, and they deal with major crimes like robbery and murder. They have their own police stations which often house the foreigners or extranjeros department where you would go to obtain your residency card.
3. Civil Guard or Guardia Civil
The Guardia Civil are easily recognised in their green uniforms. They travel the roads of Spain in pairs, and deal with accidents and traffic offences but also work as frontier guards and in immigration.
Some of the Autonomous regions, including Catalonia and the Basque region have their own police force:
Catalonia – the Mossos d’escuadra
Catalonia has its own police force, the Mossos d'Escuadra. They act much like the Guardia Civil, and combine forces with them when required.
Basque region – the Ertxaintxa
This police force is similar to the Guardia Civil and the Mossos d’Escuadra though will work with both the other two.
On the whole, Spanish police are tolerant and helpful, though you should never forget that they do uphold the law. If you are a non-resident you may be given a traffic fine on the spot. All drivers in Spain are required to carry their personal identification (with a photo, so a Passport or identity card), driving licence and other car documents must be available for viewing. You may carry a photocopy of these, but in some cases the police may insist on seeing the originals.
Spain has one of the lowest crime rates in the EU, though with the current economic woes, burglary in particular is rising. Expats and tourists are sadly an easy target for street crime, especially in Madrid and Barcelona, so when out and about keep valuables close to you and consider putting your cash and credit cards in different places. Often a gang member will try to distract you in some way while an accomplice will steal whatever they can. Sometimes these will be children, so always keep an eye on your bag and put your wallet in a safe place.