Facts on the use of force

The São Paulo Judiciary has triggered a heated debate on the use of force by the Military Police at street protests. An injunction issued by a trial court banning the use of rubber bullets and requiring the regulation of police activity was overturned one week later, on November 11, by the São Paulo State Court.

(The public civil action was filed by the São Paulo Public Defender’s Office in April and backed up by Conectas in June in an amicus curiae – a legal instrument that allows independent technical insights to be presented in a court case.)

However, the dispute between those who are against and those who defend clear rules for police action has overlooked a number of important points. Conectas explains some of them below:

Are there any laws regulating police work at demonstrations?

There is no legislation that regulates the action of the police at demonstrations. The ruling by the trial court judge was a step towards filling this void.

The Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) for the Military Police, which could serve this purpose, are confidential and, as a recent article on the Ponte website demonstrated, they are frequently disrespected by the police.

It is worth pointing out that, unlike citizens, who may only do what law does not prohibit, the State is only permitted to do what the law allows.

But aren’t the abuses by the Military Police isolated cases?

No. If this were true, the police force itself would be able to identify the culprits. Since June 2013, not one officer involved in cases of abuse at protests has been held accountable. The State persecutes and criminalizes demonstrators, but it does not hold accountable those who violate the rights of protestors.

Would the case filed by the Public Defender’s Office limit the action of the Military Police?

No. What the trial court ruling determined was the establishment of minimum standards so police action would not violate the democratic rule of law. It is important to emphasize that the plan of action would be implemented by the Public Security Department, but respecting minimum standards that guarantee the exercise of constitutional rights and establishing social control.

What else does the injunction state?

That the Military Police may not use firearms or rubber bullets at protests, that all officers have visible identification that includes name and rank, that clear conditions are established for issuing dispersal orders and that these orders are only given in extreme cases. The police must also disclose who gave the order for the dispersal and the reasons why. All these points must be included in the plan to be drafted by the Military Police.

How do things work in other countries? Are rubber bullets often used?

South Africa is an example of a country that banned the use of this type of ammunition without any impact on the work of the police. Unlike what we are told, the decision to use rubber bullets at protests is political, and not “technical”.

Brazil is one of the few countries in the world that still uses military police in routine street policing. Why is this not an ideal situation?

The civil police understand better the concept that they should guarantee the rights of citizens. The military forces are conceived and trained to deal with the “enemy”, which is incompatible with the democratic rule of law.

Does the Public Defender’s Office have the authority to make this type of demand?

Yes. Federal Complementary Law 80/1994 establishes as an institutional function of the Public Defender’s Office “to file public civil actions and all types of lawsuits capable of providing the adequate protection of diffuse, collective or homogenous individual rights when the result of the demand could benefit a group of disadvantaged people”. State Complementary Law 988/2206 takes the same line.

Is the Judiciary allowed to rule on the formulation of security policies?

Yes. No topic of public interest is off limits for the Judiciary. It is important to point out that, prior to the lawsuit, Conectas and the Human Rights Center of the São Paulo Public Defenders Office submitted a series of proposals to the Public Security Department to promote a discussion and the preparation of new standards on the use of force at protests. Given the silence of the State Executive, the demand was forwarded to the Judiciary, which has the duty to act.

Are there any safe standards for the use of less-lethal weapons?

In Brazil, there are no official standards for the safe use of less-lethal weapons, such as pepper spray and tear gas. As a rule, the police rely only on the instructions of the manufacturers of these products, which is unacceptable.

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