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Political Science

The police under the surveillance by the law

In spite of boycotts by some authorities, ombudsmen have made some progress

The levels of violence show no signs of abating and the credibility of the authorities and public powers in this respect is very low. Nonetheless, a real revolution seems to be taking place behind the scenes of crime prevention and crime combat forces in 14 Brazilian states. That is in those states where police ombudsmen have been in action. Thanks to this tool which has only been in existence for a few years – the first ombudsman position was created in São Paulo, in 1995, by the late Governor Mário Covas -, civil society is beginning to undermine the violent machine of the police apparatus, frequently accused as violating human rights. This has been possible based on a constant mapping of irregularities and accusations, available to the population by means of reports that can be accessed even on the Internet.

Various extermination gangs were identified and broken down in several cities because of the ombudsmen. An important result was achieved in São Paulo, where it was discovered that crimes of resistance followed by death (RSM), a euphemism to cover up the killing of citizens by the police, went to the wrong courts because they were considered as “crimes of resistance”. As the “defendant” was dead, the lawsuit filed by the Public Prosecution Office was automatically turned down and the crime of death committed by the police was not even taken into consideration. Therefore, the victim was guilty of dying. Based on a report published by the ombudsman’s office, court authorities were obliged to change the way RSM lawsuits were distributed; now they are first forwarded to criminal courts.

These conclusions are part of the doctorate thesis in political science “Police ombudsmen in Brazil; control and participation”, written by political scientist Bruno Konder Comparato, which has just been presented to the doctorate committee at the University of São Paulo’s College of Philosophy, Literature and Humanities/FFLCH/USP. Comparato has enthusiastically defended this instrument since he showed interest in studying two topics that are basic to him: human rights and democracy. His thesis, well supported by facts and numbers, is consistent and leaves no doubts that the population needs and should give police ombudsmen a vote of confidence. He will thus do himself and society a favor in the broader sense of refining the democratic State.

Instead of dealing with the issue from the point of view of efficiency or not, the author points out elements that legitimize its existence. He emphasizes the importance of the role played by the State in this sense: for the police ombudsman experience to continue and progress,  normative arguments are necessary to favor external control which were the origin of  the  creation of the ombudsman – transparency, supervision, rendering of accounts, alignment with human rights principles – to be corroborated by more concrete evidence of  benefits, such as a reduction of violence and abuse by the police; less crimes by the police; and higher satisfaction of citizens as to the work done by the police.

The way police ombudsmen were created and institutionalized in Brazil, however, it would be a mistake to judge them and evaluate them according to what they cannot do, such as investigating crimes committed by the police and penalizing the infracting police. “We should evaluate them according to what is in their power and listen to the citizens, provoke police organizations and the proper authorities to take  measures in the sense of solving the complaints and obtain  satisfactory responses for the population. It is also their responsibility to organize the data and suggest changes in  behavioral patterns of the police, by means of bills of law or internal police resolutions; disclose the data through reports, press interviews, articles in the press and encourage and facilitate  participation by the community.

Therefore, they have three roles to play: supervision, investigation and punishment. “It might seem frustrating, but the only one of the three stages within the reach of the police ombudsmen is the first one – supervision.” Comparato draws attention to the fact that the implicit objective of the reason for the existence of the police ombudsmen, which is to reduce police crimes and abuse, is very difficult to evaluate, because there are no comparitive parameters, even if good results occur indirectly. “A lot of the frustration in relation to the functioning and the results,  that are barely visible to the population in general, is due to the institutional limitations.” Various denouncers complain about the lack of adequate responses by the ombudsmen, when the fact is that the expected measures depend on the magistrates and the Public Prosecution Office.

The sociologist points out that his initial intention was to study the issue of human rights and investigate how they have become part of the public agenda in Brazil in the last two decades. His starting point was the creation of institutions for the promotion of human rights in the three Powers and at the three levels of the Federation. In addition, Brazil is a signatory to all the international and regional treaties related to the issue.

In the initial phase of the research project, Comparato also realized that human rights encompass practically everything that refers to public policies, and therefore it is not easy to define “public human rights policy”. Furthermore, he states, it is not enough to commit oneself to the defense of human rights and sign international treaties so that they become effective. “It would be necessary for international prescriptions to be translated into national laws and rules and for specific national and local institutions to be created”, concluding that this was precisely the case of the police ombudsmen, which allows the verification of a fundamental human right, the right to safety, which is connected to the right to life.

Comparato was motivated to exploit this aspect for another reason: as police ombudsmen’s offices are something recent, they have not been studied yet.. “They exist in a number of states, which allows for comparisons to be made and there is plenty of research material, because theoretically they are obliged to provide periodical reports on their activities.” In addition to these sources, the researcher resorted to minutes of the national police ombudsmen forum, to interviews with ombudsmen and staff, to annals of events organized by institutions and to written material on the subject published in Brazil and abroad.

In short, his thesis defends the opinion that the implementation of a police ombudsman’s office really makes a difference. The ideal way to prove this, he explains, is to compare the states with this kind of service to states that have not implemented it yet. However, he discovered that, in the second group, there is no information whatsoever on control over the police. By choosing another path, he noticed that this instrument allows society to become better acquainted with the way in which police activities are organized and conducted. “It is important to point out that accusations are always made, even if there is no appropriate channel to do so. The population makes accusations when it really wants to do so.”

In this context, the main advantage of the ombudsmen, in the sociologist’s opinion, is to group the accusations that had in the past been forwarded to human rights commissions at the Federal and State Congresses, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, newspapers, NGOs, civil society associations linked to human rights, the “Comissão Pastoral da Terra”, a church aid group, and to the local and regional offices of the Bar Associations/ OAB etc. The accusations were  not only scattered, but were also filed together with complaints and reports of all kinds. “This formidable data base that the ombudsmen’s offices are organizing allows us to make more detailed analyses of police actions, always according to the  view of the population, because the irregularities, crimes and accusations that are communicated do not make up the reality; they are merely what the population felt was worthwhile communicating.”

Because they are so important, perhaps the country’s police ombudsmen are the best-known public ombudsmen. They are also the most visible in terms of grievances, because they expose the collective complaints. Possibly for this reason, and perhaps because this idea is so new, some pressure-related reactions by means of boycotts seek to undermine or weaken the independence and credibility of this kind of monitoring. These direct or indirect actions stem mainly from the authorities and from those who feel threatened by the complaints. Hence, independence is an important issue that must be addressed.

In Brazil, the police ombudsmen’s offices are linked to the Executive Power. The implementation depends on the state governor’s decision, and in their daily work, the ombudsmen and their staff are at the mercy of the goodwill  of the Secretary of Public Safety. “When the ombudsmen’s offices function properly, they start to disturb things, because they point out irregularities and pinpoint the weaknesses.” And all kinds of pressure can then arise, ranging from refusal to appoint an ombudsman or re-allocate the staff, to cutting down on funds, making it difficult or even preventing the smooth progress of bureaucratic actions.

An example in this respect happened during the Alckmin Administration (2003-2006), in São Paulo State, when the ombudsman’s office was obliged to relocate twice – one of these times, to run-down premises which had no furniture, telephone service or electricity. In the State of Minas Gerais, the ombudsman’s term in office expired at the end of 2006 and no new ombudsman had been appointed until mid-2007. Even worse, a large quantity of equipment, such as computers, an automobile and furniture that had been purchased thanks to funds provided by the European Union by means of a program to strengthen police ombudsmen in Brazil, was passed on to the State Ombudsman’s Office.

The pressure takes on other forms. Disclosing the telephone number of the ombudsman’s office is something simple for the state government to do, but the government does not disclose it. Bruno Konder Comparato says that, in some cases, the ombudsmen are dismissed from their jobs. In the State of Goiás, the ombudsman was dismissed last June, on the eve of an event whose objective was to provide closer contact between the ombudsman and the community and police authorities.

This is why the scientist stresses two very important points for police ombudsmen: independence and autonomy. Independence, he says, means that the ombudsman must remain in office for a specific term, and cannot be fired, except for a very serious reason, like any other government employee. He must also be chosen by civil society and cannot be connected to any police authorities. Autonomy means that the office of the ombudsman must have specific funds allocated in the budget and the ombudsman must have the right to use such funds without the need of approval by the Public Security Secretary.

The researcher says that the ideal situation would be for the ombudsman’s office to have its own premises, physically separated from the buildings that house the Public Security Offices or police departments. “It is not very welcoming for a person filing an accusation to come into contact with armed and uniformed guards standing in front of a building  containing an office which provides an opportunity for a citizen to file accusation against the police. But unfortunately, this is the situation of most of the ombudsmen’s offices in the entire country.” Therefore, there is still a lot to be done. “Experience so far has shown that the performance of the ombudsmen’s offices still depends very much on the personality of the ombudsman, which means that this activity has not really become an institution.”

The Public Prosecution Office was responsible for monitoring police activities in the past, before the onset of the ombudsman. But this work was disregarded and it was only recently that the work of the ombudsman began to be done in an organized and systematic manner. Comparato bets – and hopes – that the police ombudsman’s office, as a mechanism for the surveillance and protection of human rights and democracy, will be able to efficiently control police activities and will act to avoid, constrain or reduce abuse or excesses by cops, agents, chiefs of police, and other people working in this field. The battle has already begun, but unfortunately nobody knows when it will end.