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POLICE AND THE USE OF DEADLY FORCE: LESSONS FROM
SAO PAULO, KINGSTON, AND JOHANNESBURG
BY YAKUBU AZINDOW
There is no doubt that law enforcement is an important concept in the production of formal social control in all societies (Friedmann, 1992). The work of the police is often contested because it involves a specialized responsibility and delegated authority that involves the use of force. No wonder, law enforcement has become an arena of contest between the state and communities over spheres of authority and responsibility for maintenance of law and order. This is because it involves a persistent effort to reconstruct order in preferred forms, if necessary by the use of force (Marenin, 1996:309).
Since the work of the police help produce order in society, a comparative analysis offers an insight in to the nature of order in other society. In this short essay, I focus on Sao Paulo, Kingston, and Johannesburg to argue that there is a pattern of repression of the poor through deadly force. These three urban cities discussed here resemble each other in several respects, but mostly importantly, a huge percentage of their population live in abject poverty, have a history of slave trade and class domination. These distinctive characteristics have enormous implication on police enforcement. I draw on explanations that will link these cities under consideration. Drawing on evidence from these three cities, if not countries, I suggest that there is no evidence to support the popular claim that police brutality is determined by the type of government in power namely, democracy or authoritarian. The essay contends that a reasonable percentage of the general public support deadly force as a way of dealing with rising incidents of crime in these urban centers. Indeed, most wealthy urban dwellers are indifferent. I conclude that the widespread approval of violence against suspects is a rather desperate gesture since there are no viable alternatives of dealing with insecurity in these cities.
While the statistics on traffic fatalities and homicides in general are often available, the data for use of deadly force by police, particularly killings are not released and often undocumented. It is clear, however, that the extent of violence varies all the way from merely arresting a defiant suspect to shooting or torturing a witness to ascertain information. When the use of force to deal with a criminal situation exceed what is reasonably necessary, then excessive violence or force is said to have been used. Police brutality and abuse of deadly force is an illustration of official violence. As Chevigny (1995:11) rightly conveys, it is a way of distancing oneself from the victim and reduces the victim to a suffering subject. This seems to suggest the victim’s life is worthless. In this context, therefore, torture is related to police brutality and deadly force in that it involves a calculated use of violence by a law enforcement official, to compel a suspect to comply.
Both the abuse of deadly force and torture are frowned upon by international human rights norms and conventions. As an illustration, the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force or Firearms by law Enforcement Officials stipulates that “Law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons without the imminent threat of death or serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives” (cited in Chevigny, 1995). Indeed, insights from Sao Paulo, Johannesburg, Kingston indicate that the use of deadly force by the police has often been justifies on the basis that the suspects were armed, shot at or at least displayed weapons.
TARGETS OF BRUTALITY
Undoubtedly, the fear of crime is too easily manipulated by law enforcement agencies as justification for use of deadly force. The experiences of police brutality in Sao Paulo, Kingston, and Johannesburg, however suggest that the use of deadly force reflects the elites’ fear of the poor because in these communities the disparities in income are extreme. Urban centers have become the economic giants and serve as magnets for the poor from other parts of these countries. In all these three cities, the distribution of income is radically unequal and has become more so in recent years. This inequality results from such factors as education, economic, and political opportunities. Sao Paulo is the economic giant of Brazil, producing about 50% of industrial products, but the majority of Sao Paulans who are non-white are living in abject destitution. In Kingston, the 10% white control much of the socioeconomic life in the capital and the remaining 90% who are blacks have become poorer over the years (Chevigny, 1995:205). The erroneous popular perception that the wealthy are affected by crime has contributed to making the underprivileged class the primary predictors of police violence. Similarly, in South Africa, the notion of “internal colonialism” remains relevant (Hoffman and Centeno, 2003). In effect, the history of slavery, colonialism, and dependence on the industrialized West has enormous implication on police enforcement. Most obviously, the continuing struggle among classes makes the deprived members of the community lack any sense of participation.
These historical experiences have contributed to increase use of deadly force meted out to the poor and non-white as acceptable and necessary in dealing with social problems (Chevigny, 1996:33). Deadly force is largely expended more on the control of these underprivileged groups because they are regarded the ‘pathologically criminal class” (Macaulay, 2002). In Kingston and Johannesburg, for instance, such class and race conflicts have led to a situation in which the blacks use violence as a means of expressing indignation as their status as outcasts in their own communities. Thus, faced with threats of poverty, inequality, and class struggle, the rich and powerful have no hesitation to suppress the underprivileged class through official violence. The wealthy members in these major cities feel little common bond about the plight of a poor criminal unless the incident directly affects them. In all this, Human Rights Watch/Americas (1997:29) seem accurate in observing that deadly force is used and justified when the victim is poor and a criminal suspect. Suffice it add that these attitudes about the poor and less influential are rooted in a history of mistreatment dating back to slave trade and colonialism. The police traditionally beat the poor because they often have no one to advance their course. In contrast, however, the police shy away from using deadly force on the middle and upper class because they have social, economic, and political leverage and are capable of “teaching the police where actual power resides”. It is therefore unsurprising that the cases of police brutality that make it to the courts or human rights offices are cases involving the rich and famous in society, who have the means to seek redress for such violence.
It seems that there is a strong support in urban centers for the police act boldly in enforcing the law. Thus, although there is a public perception that the police rely on excessive violence, the public share the opinion that it is inevitable in controlling crimes. In a study on Sao Paulo, Chevigny’s (1996:28) reveal that 41 % of residents share the view that criminals deserve nothing but shooting from the police. Legal solutions to crimes are not only time consuming, but also not feasible because of perceptions of corruption and incompetence of most urban police forces. Similarly, in South Africa, crime fighting is a national priority for both the government and general public. A survey conducted in 1998 reveal that about one-third of South Africans supported the police’s right to use deadly force (Pigou, 2002). Another survey conducted by Reality Check show that 70% of South Africans either agreed or strongly agreed that criminals “have too many rights” (cited in Hamber, 1999).
CONTINUING CYCLE OF ABUSE
Macaulay (2003) observes that in democratic societies, the state is supposed to have monopoly of violence and to exercise it within legal limits for the purpose of respecting rule of law. Such an assertion implies that deadly force is often associated with weak democratic traditions and dictatorships. This contention may seem compelling from a distance, but is clearly rejected by the lessons derived from Johannesburg, Kingston, and Sao Paulo. What seems plausible is the fact that the causes of police brutality reflect socioeconomic and historical factors discussed elsewhere in this essay. Obviously, unlike in dictatorships, democratic governments tend to discourage violence because of the presence of institutions of accountability. Thus, respect for human rights remains a veritable source of legitimacy for democratic governments. At the same time, however, controlling crime and disorder and creating an enabling environment for socio-economic activities is equally imperative. Jamaica’s “exceptionalism” is often asserted in the Caribbean because it has maintained its democratic tradition since independence. The country continues to share in Great Britain’s liberal traditions. Despite this democratic culture however there are many instances where elected officials have sanctioned police brutality. In 1967, as an illustration, Prime Minister Hugh Shearer gave the police unlimited discretion in the use of deadly force as a means of bringing criminals to justice (Chevigny, 1995). Thus, the wanton use of deadly force witnessed in Kingston, for instance is not a consequence of dictatorship, but rather due to the country’s socioeconomic history. The majority of the population, mostly non-white has no appreciation whatsoever that the police exist to serve their interest. The Mobile Reserve constitutes a strike force that met out brutality on the majority urban blacks. In contrast, from 1964-1984, Brazil has been cited as one of the most durable dictatorship in the Western Hemisphere (Chevigny, 1996:23). Despite the country’s successful transition from authoritarian rule, however, there is evidence that law enforcement officials have become more corrupt, more violent, more abusive and less controllable than even than in the period of military rule (Macaulay, 2002).
Deadly force has become a way of demonstrating to the authorities and the public that the police are efficient and effective in dealing with urban crimes. Instead of taking disciplinary actions against police officers who abuse power, they are rather rewarded through promotions and citations. Human Rights Watch/America observes in its 1997 report that several decrees authorizing salary bonuses for officers exhibiting bravery has contributed to rising police abuse of deadly force in Sao Paulo. No wonder a relatively small number of officers are responsible for most of the police shootings in Sao Paulo. As Chevigny (1995) reveals, abusive police officers such as Gilson Lopes of Sao Paulo, who is responsible for killing 44 civilians by 1992, was promoted to the rank of a Major in the ROTA amidst stellar references by superiors.
In South Africa, the Apartheid era was most the violent period in country’s history. In the 1970s and 1980s, police violence led to many shootings from violence protests. Riots and demonstrations were brutally crushed by the police as a means of eliminating political resistance by the black majority (Hamber, 1999). The evidence, however, points to continuity in the spate of such brutality and use of deadly force. In the post Apartheid era, particularly between 1995 and 1999 almost 25% of all convictions relate to excessive use of deadly force by members of the South African Police Service. On average over 1200 police officers were convicted annually of various forms of brutality including intentional shooting and negligent handling of firearms (Pigou, 2002).In effect, despite South Africa’s introduction of human rights curriculum and a “prevention of violence” policy in 1998/9, police abuse rages on.
In sum, this essay has attempted to “uncover” the face of police abuse of deadly in Johannesburg, Kingston, and Sao Paulo urban cities. The essay argued that deadly force if often used against people who are not influential, non-white, and often poor. The suppression of these groups is necessary to advance the interests of the urban rich and famous. Despite the rhetoric of the respect for human rights by law enforcement officials, the use of deadly force cannot be justified under any circumstance. There is little to conclude that the abuse of deadly force has reduced with the onset or consolidation of democracy. The maintenance order and fighting crimes without resorting to deadly force remain a contentious issue.
Chevigny, Paul. “Changing Control of Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil” in Marenin, Otwin ed., Policing Change, Changing Police: International Perspectives. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. (1996), pp.23-36.
Chevigny, Paul. Edge of the Knife: Police Violence in the Americas. N Y: The New Press (1995).
Friedmann, Robert. Community Policing: Comparative Perspectives and Prospects. New York: St. Martin’s Press (1992).
Hamber, Brandon. “Have No Doubts it is Fear in the Land”: An Exploration of the Continuing Cycles of Violence in South Africa” Zeitschrift Fur Politische Psychologie, Jg. 7 (1999).
Hoffman, Kelly and Miguel A. Centeno. “The Lopsided Continent: Inequality in Latin America” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol.29 (2003), 363-390.
Human Rights Watch. Police Brutality in Urban Brazil. NY: Human Rights Watch (1997).
Macaulay, Fiona. Problems of Police Oversight in Brazil. Center for Brazilian Studies Working Paper number CBS-33-02, University of Oxford, (2002).
Marenin, Otwin, ed., Policing Change, Changing Police: International Perspectives. New York: Garland Publishing, Inc. (1996).
Pigou, Piers. Monitoring Police Violence and Torture in South Africa. Paper Presented at the International Seminar on Indicators and Diagnosis of Human Rights: The Case of Torture in Mexico, Mexican National Commission for Human Rights, (April, 2002).
UNIV OF MASSACHUSETTS