In the News – A Close Up

Student-Police Relations in UK Riots

While it looks as though the future holds budget cuts galore for numerous countries across the globe, Britain appears to be taking the lead with massive cuts to law enforcement and education.  Perhaps more interesting than the cuts -which are neither surprising nor innovative or unique -has been the public’s reaction to them and the police response it has elicited.

Evoking memories of 1960’s student movements, British youth have taken to the streets on several occasions to protest education cuts that will make university education too costly for many to attend.  Over the past three days three mass student protests have taken place in Brighton, Birmingham, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford and London.  Yet as students continue arguing for their right to education and peaceful protest (check out a video from the UK’s Guardian) -like student protesters of the 1960’s -they have been met with hundreds of police officers with riot shields, batons, dogs, armoured horses and meat wagons.  As Laurie Penny of the New Statesman comments in her article on the recent Whitehall police kettle, “these young people joined the protest to defend their right to learn, but in the kettle they are quickly coming to realise that their civil liberties are of less consequence to this government than they had ever imagined.”

As the student protests continue to build momentum and power, some police departments have started reaching out to protesters.  Just this morning, Bristol police have asked the protesters to speak with them before carrying out any additional actions.  Chief Inspector Mark Jackson stated that it was in the interests of protesters and police to come together and “have a clear plan of what the demonstration can achieve, and how we can work together to negotiate the safest way of doing this.”  He also insisted that “the police are not trying to stop young people from staging legitimate protests. But we must insist that those protests are peaceful, lawful and safe.”

Coincidentally, a 40th anniversary edition of The Politics of Protest has just been published, exploding onto the scene with an interesting American Society of Criminology Annual Meeting panel this past November. The author, Jerome Skolnick, as well as some of the project’s original collaborators, including Anthony Platt, were present.


“The crisis in Rio and the media pastiche”

Brazilian anthropologist Luiz Eduardo Soares, who served as the Coordinator of Public Safety for Rio de Janeiro and the Brazilian Secretary of Public Security, among other posts, and has held several academic positions, at private and public universities in Rio, São Paulo and in the U.S., has written an excellent piece, The crisis in Rio and the media pastiche, on the violence in the city of Rio that has made front page news around the world. I met Soares in the spring of 2005 when he agreed to come to Berkeley for a conference I co-organized on violence and the Americas.

The last month and a half in Rio have been particularly bloody, as both the traffickers and government have made shows of force. The most recent events (roughly following this summary in the newspaper the Jornal do Brasil) began on the evening of Sunday, November 21st, when six men armed with machine guns set three vehicles on fire on a major highway called the Linha Vermelha, and while escaping attacked the car of an air force commander. On Tuesday, all of Rio’s active police, along with officers from federal highway patrol were put to the streets to deal with further attacks. Throughout the rest of the week, in which 181 vehicles were burned, the Navy, Army and Federal Police joined forces with Rio’s police in attempting to control the situation, which, it should be noted, was not spread throughout the city but concentrated in specific neighborhoods.

Last Thursday, 200 officers belonging to an elite police force known as Bope (Batalhão de Operações Especiais) entered a favela called Vila Cruzeiro, which is part of bairro da Penha (where for a brief period of time I taught English). Some of the drug traffickers there escaped to another favela, Morro do Alemão. On Sunday morning, a week after this particular episode began (although it is misleading to speak of such events as isolated, even as a shorthand), the forces took control of the morro and the whole Complexo do Alemão, more or less without resistance from the traffickers, according to reports. All of this received dramatic coverage by the Brazilian press. Since at least some of the major traffickers are now making their way through the forested areas of the city to Rocinha, another major favela, the police campaign and accompanying violence will presumably continue.

At least 39 people died in this time period. The initial violence by the gangs was widely reported to be a response to the installation of new community policing units called UPPs in but some sources have said, to the contrary, that rather it was due to a standstill between police and bandits who were in negotiations to update their agreed upon index of bribes.

UPP stands for Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, in English Pacifying Police Unit, a program that at least in theory aims to impede the “parallel power” of the drug traffickers by actually providing state services in long neglected areas while also addressing crime. (Here’s a NYTimes article; Ben could undoubtedly say a lot more though) They are the current incarnation of a program Soares tried to implement when he was the Public Safety Coordinator in 1999.

Most of the international media, such as the New York Times, has been positively euphoric over the turn of events: “In a quick and decisive military sweep, Brazilian security forces seized control of this city’s most notorious slum on Sunday, claiming victory in a weeklong battle against drug gangs that has claimed dozens of lives”; this echoes the reporting in the mainstream Brazilian media.

The traffic the TV shows. The traffic the TV does NOT show

Soares, who was in much demand by the media for comments on the events, instead wrote a piece for his blog. Some of the points he made are these:

The media always repeats the same cycle of rabid attention to crises, paired with a complete lack of investment in reflection and consistent, solid information in the off period. They repeat the same wrong questions (a) what can be done right now to contain the violence? (b) what can the police do to definitively conquer the drug trade? (c) Why doesn’t the government call in the army? (d) will Rio’s image be sullied internationally? (e) Will we succeed in having a great World Cup and Olympics?

de André Dahmer Rough translation: 1) guy: I wrote a piece on Facebook defending the death of the trafficker. 2) guy: Or you think a bandit would grant quarter to someone? He’d kill him right away. 3) guy: I am a good citizen, you have to put bullets in them. Dog: one more good citizen who thinks like a bandit

He then proceeds to respond to these questions. There is nothing, he says, that can be done immediately to resolve the situation of insecurity. “If we want to in fact solve a serious problem, it is not possible to continue to treat the patient only when he is in ICU, stricken with a deadly illness, in the acute stage…Therefore the first step to avoid repeating the situation is to change the question… : what can be done to improve public security, in Rio and in Brazil, to avoid the everyday violence, as well as its intensification, expressed in successive crises?” Those who say that the situation requires immediate response take exactly the position that has impeded consistent advances in public security; long term solutions are necessary. “The best response to the emergency is to begin to move in the direction of rebuilding the conditions that generated the emergency situation.”

The police, Soares writes next, must stop joining the traffickers: they must stop selling them arms, and they must not form militias that take criminal profits. In other words, “the polarity referred to in the question (police versus traffickers) hides the real problem: there is is no polarity.” What must happen is in fact a separation of the bandit from the police, a differentiation between crime and police. There are, he emphasizes, honest police whom he considers the first victims of their institution’s degradation, because the “rotten band of police” who act in militias, embarrass, humiliate and threaten them.

Soares makes several other useful comments, pointing out, for example, that trafficking as it is currently conducted, by gangs that are expensive to arm and have high mortality, is going to change to a delivery model; I’ll leave it at this for now though.

He ends with an incensed description of the media coverage. The nightly news in Brazil, watched by nearly everyone, is called the Journal Nacional. Soares writes that the news on “Thursday, 25 November, defined the chaos in Rio de Janeiro, splattering scenes of war and death, panic and desperation, as a day of historic victory: the day the police occupied Vila Cruzeiro. Either I suffered a sudden mental blackout and became an obdurate and incorrigible idiot, or the editors of the nightly news felt themselves authorized to treat millions of viewers as obdurate and incorrigible idiots.”

Here’s another useful analysis of the media and what has been happening in Rio (in Portuguese)


Follow up: women police chiefs in Mexico

On Monday Hermila García Quiñones, who on October 9th 2010 became the first female police chief of the city of Meoqui in Mexico, was shot and killed after leaving her home, which she shared with her parents, whom she supported, on her way to work. García Quiñones was one of four women who have recently taken on leadership roles in police departments in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, in the face of drug-related violence the government has been unable to control.

I wrote in October about the 20-year-old criminology student, Marisol Valles Garcia, who became chief of police in Praxedis G. Guerrero. Her youth and determination to prevent violence with “principles and values” rather than guns, were headline news for a brief moment, and quickly inspired two more women to become heads of security of their towns, also in the Juárez Valley – Verónica Ríos Ontiveros, of El Vergel and Olga Herrera Castillo, of Villa Luz. Both are small hamlets in Samalayuca, south of Juárez City, and since there are only a few officers and one patrol car,  they will mostly take crime reports.

Although Hermila García Quiñones started before the other women, and led a much larger force of 90 officers, she didn’t receive quite as much publicity. She was unmarried and did not have children, and although criticized for her lack of experience in police work, she was at least an attorney and had worked in city government before. Her situation was similar to that of Silvia Molina, who in 2008 was the top administrative official of the police department in Ciudad Juarez and was also killed.

The media’s interest is greater for more exotic cases, the very young student with an infant, the two housewives she inspired. They would all seem to be part of the same trend, of women taking on security posts, and the death of García Quiñones, and Molina before her, make it doubtful that female gender provides any protection from the violence of the cartels. Maybe the other women’s inexperience and motherhood will make a difference, and maybe this is what they are hoping.  So, this is just an update; if anyone has any thoughts, please do share


In the News: Budget Cuts and Community Policing in the UK

UK officials embark upon immense budget cuts that will greatly impact policing.  Last week Greater Manchester Police excited public attention by Tweeting every call they received in 24 hours. The Chief Constable said he wanted to show that the police don’t just deal with crime and instead play a larger role in the community.  Yet, in the face of impending budget cuts, many feel crime-fighting should constitute the majority of police officer time.  Nick Herbert the Coalition’s Conservative police minister, argues that “Labour’s wasteful legacy,” has allowed for a proliferation of bureaucracy and unnecessary policing costs.  He asserts that police will be able to catch more criminals with a smaller budget and fewer officers.  Jan Berry, outgoing head of the UK’s Police Federation, echoes Herbert’s sentiments over police inefficiency, reporting this past week that up to 1/3 of police time is wasted on red tape.  Ultimately she contends that “Too much attention is given to crossing Ts and dotting Is and not enough to getting it right first time.”

First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond, argues that police cuts are necessary, but contends that cuts will affect police bureaucracy -not street policing.  In a recent speech, he emphasized that “if it comes down to a choice between cops and bureaucracy, between bobbies on the beat and the boundaries of police authorities…it’s policemen first, safety first, communities first.”  Strathclyde Chief Constable Steve House, Scotland’s most senior officer, paints a very different picture of policing after the cuts.  He has warned that state spending cuts could drive his force back to the “bad old days” before his community policing revolution.  Scotland is expected to reduce its budged by 25% over the next five years, which House says will force him to take officers off the beat and put them back into patrol cars if spending is slashed as expected.  He argues this change would reduce community members’ sense of safety, noting that “If [the police] have to retreat to the bad old days when all [they] do is put out squad cars racing from job to job with blue lights and sirens that then will just make the public uneasy because they don’t see cops walking, they don’t see them on bicycles, which is what gives them confidence.”


In the News: Police Corruption, Civil Unrest, and Excessive Force

A bit of policing news from around the globe…

This year Costa Rican officials embarked upon a crackdown on corruption among the Policia de Transito, or traffic cops.  So far, 50 corrupt officers have been detained, caught by undercover officers paying mordidas, or bribes, with marked bills.  The majority of cops apprehended had been working in the police service for 10-15 years, suggesting the practice of asking for payoffs in exchange for not giving out traffic tickets may be deeply entrenched in police culture.

While Costa Rica works to rid their police of corruption, a recent Egyptian court ruling has banned Egyptian police from patrolling Cairo University’s campus altogether.  In place of police, the University will deploy civilian security guards.  Check out activist and blogger Hassam El Hamalawy’s analysis that frames the court decision within the context of civil protest and police use of excessive force here.

In France, police and protesters clash as the government attempts to regain control of oil refineries.  Just hours before the Senate vote on the controversial pension reform bill, “helmeted riot police in body armor shoved striking workers aside to force open the gates of the Total SA refinery at Grandpuits,” one of 12 French refineries that has been shut down by union strikers for days.  Protesters symbolically burned a coffin after the police intervention.


Criminology student becomes the chief of police

It’s a remarkable turn of events that Marisol Valles Garcia, a 20-year-old criminology student, has taken on the position of chief of police in Praxedis G. Guerrero, a small town in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, bordering Texas. Praxedis G. Guerrero is located in the Juarez Valley, 35 miles southeast of Ciudad Juarez, called “the bloodiest city in Mexico”, with a reported 2,500 people killed in cartel-related violence so far this year. At night, drug gangs take over, and most of the police buildings in surrounding towns have been abandoned.

Marisol Valles Garcia was the only applicant for the job according to most news outlets, although the UK Guardian reported that the town’s mayor, Jose Luis Guerrero, said she was the most qualified of a handful of applicants. The Guardian added that in many parts of Mexico, it is “considered tantamount to a death sentence”. Valles Garcia’s plan is to have a dozen or so mostly female, unarmed officers “out there going door to door, looking for criminals, and (in homes) where there are none, trying to teach values to the families”. This plan is both touching and pragmatic, as the force currently consists of “13 agents, nine of them women, with one working patrol car, three automatic rifles and a pistol”.

Valles Garcia told CNN en Español, “The weapons we have are principles and values, which are the best weapons for prevention” and “[o]ur work will be pure prevention. We are not going to be doing anything else other than prevention”.

According to CNN, Valles Garcia “aims to establish programs in neighborhoods and schools, to win back security in public spaces and to foster greater cooperation among neighbors so they can form watch committees”.

I wonder how the reported plan for an unarmed, mostly female patrol was developed. Yes, it is pragmatic, but since Valles Garcia has also been assigned two body guards, and there’s been a fair amount of media attention, presumably other resources could have been appropriated for the town. So let’s say it is a choice. There’s a long history of unarmed patrols of course – does anyone have those references handy? In March 2010, there was the “Female approach to Peacekeeping” article in the NYTimes, about an all-women United Nations police unit from India, in Liberia. I did a quick search for precedents as well and saw that Manila had an “all-women mobile patrol” group that monitored malls during the Christmas season. Actually, most of the stories on women police officers were from India, Bangladesh and the Philippines.

That an untested college student was the best option, considering the crime and violence in the region, surely says something – about her stunning bravery, about the failure of traditional approaches, about the desperate conditions there. There’s nothing to say that Valles Garcia didn’t just decide to do this on her own though. Maybe she is drawing on ideas from her criminology classes.


In the News: Prisons, Police Interrogations, and Customs and Border Protection at the Supreme Court (?)

Getting some momentum into the semester, here’s a few bits of news from around the internet tubes:

Dr. Jonathan Simon, UC Berkeley, talks with George Kenney on Electric Politics: Rewiring the American Regime about his new book Governing Through Crime, which focuses on the growth of the U.S. prison system in conjunction with the ever-growing “security mindset” that has crept into nearly all aspects of American society.

Professor Kassin speaks briefly about the role of police in obtaining false confessions (especially in relation to youth and other vulnerable populations), police interrogation techniques (including lying to  suspects), and the difficulty of discerning false confessions from real confessions.

U.S. Supreme Court petitioned to hear a mother’s case against U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) after her 4th generation, U.S. citizen daughter is deported to Mexico with the child’s undocumented father.  The petition followed a judgement handed down by the U.S. Court of appeals for the 5th circuit stating that while the court did not “condone the Border Patrol’s actions or the choices it made,” the mother could not bring suit against CBP because BP agents were entitled to use their discretion in the matter.