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Police violence is linked to society’s political culture and how we deal with life, scientist says

Police violence is linked to society’s political culture and how we deal with life, scientist says

Experts discussed violence and radicalization at an online seminar held by the São Paulo State Academy of Sciences. The topic is the title of the seventh and last chapter of FAPESP 60 Anos: A Ciência no Desenvolvimento Nacional (photo: São Paulo State Government)

Published on 12/19/2022

By Maria Fernanda Ziegler  |  Agência FAPESP – A study conducted in Brazil by Getúlio Vargas Foundation’s Center for Science Applied to Public Safety (CCAS-FGV) concluded that the use of police body cameras has reduced deaths due to police intervention by 57% in São Paulo state compared to the average for the period prior to their introduction.

According to the study, the reduction corresponded to 104 deaths avoided in the first 14 months after body cameras were introduced, considering only the state capital, São Paulo, and the metropolitan area (RMSP). 

“The use of body cameras is a merely technological discussion in the public safety sector. However, the introduction of the technology in São Paulo state cast light on important questions about radicalization and violence, such as whether excessive use of force is a public problem,” said Joana Monteiro, who led the study. “We’re seeing significant radicalization in Brazil, along with the widespread belief that violence is normal. A very large proportion of the population seems to think excessive use of force by the police is natural. You often hear people say killing is part of the job, police intervention can lead to deaths, and whoever died can’t have been an honest citizen.”

Monteiro took part in an online seminar on Violence and Radicalization held by the São Paulo State Academy of Sciences (ACIESP) to discuss the seventh and last chapter of the book FAPESP 60 Anos: A Ciência no Desenvolvimento Nacional (“60 Years of FAPESP: Advancing Science for National Development”). The chapter (in Portuguese and English) is at: fapesp.br/eventos/2022/aciesp-cap7.pdf

According to the experts who participated in the discussion, the tendency to naturalize unequal enforcement of the laws, discrimination in guaranteeing fundamental rights, and the insistence on treating “bad people” differently from “good citizens” are not new but have recently worsened. 

“There’s a paradox in the liberal legal tradition, which argues that the market inevitably creates inequality among citizens according to their merits, while the law makes everyone formally equal, assigning common rights to all citizens in order to minimize the inequality necessarily imposed by the market. In this sense, economic inequality is a natural factor in liberal theory,” said Roberto Kant de Lima, a researcher at the Institute of Comparative Studies in Conflict Management of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro State (INEAC-UFF). 

Institutions responsible for public safety were established when Brazil was still a Portuguese colony, he explained, starting when the Portuguese royal family fled Napoleon to Rio de Janeiro. “Portuguese monarchical institutions were repeated in the colony, and even now the police consider themselves descendants of the royal guards,” he said. “But the royal guards weren’t a police force. They were an instrument of social control at the service of an absolute monarch. Here in Rio de Janeiro, for example, the coat of arms of the police features the Crown of Dom João VI."

Slavery also played a role in this division. “Slaves were chattels in civil law, but subject to criminal law,” he said. “All this creates repressive social control and inequality before the law. Brazil doesn’t really have a criminal justice system like those of the Anglosphere. Law enforcement agencies are in charge of investigations, and the police are kept separate from the Judiciary.”

For Sergio Adorno, a professor at the University of São Paulo (USP) and editor of the chapter, the judicial equality narrative justifies the inequality of rights that underpins both violence and the normalization of violence.

“Violence and radicalization are complex phenomena that can’t be reduced to a problem of law and order, repression, or the application of new control technologies. They have to do with public order but they’re also part of society’s political culture and how we deal with life. In modern societies, we’re taught that everyone has a right to life, regardless of differences in race, class, color, property and power. However, in practice, we find that some people’s lives don’t have the same value as others’.” 


According to the experts, the normalization of violence also derives from a division in society and radicalization, leading among other things to a lack of belief in science. Monteiro noted that the study of police body cameras was welcomed by some police officers but opposed by others, who lashed out at one of the authors by email.

“Public safety is the area of government that least uses science,” he said. “I’ve been working on this topic since 2015, and I’ve observed very significant changes. More and more people consider violence [and killing] normal, and you hear a great deal of radical talk. The study was criticized because its authors weren’t police officers. The critics also argued that oversight of the police shouldn’t be too strict. These views show that the people concerned really have no idea what science is and what role it plays.”

Renato Janine Ribeiro, President of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), also emphasized the attacks on scientists. “It’s no accident that the far right has chosen scientists and journalists as their main targets because these two areas deal with what right-wing extremists most refuse to accept: facts,” he said. “The problem is that we’ve lost this common point. We've lost this possibility because there are people who systematically deny the facts, be they the results of an election or a budgetary problem.”

For Marcos Nobre, President of CEBRAP, a São Paulo-based think tank, another aspect of the change is the way people keep informed or consume media and entertainment. “The huge number of options in terms of media and sources of information has led to more rarefied political information. This is a paradox, but it’s detected by empirical research all the time,” he said.

He proposed leaving aside the term “polarization” to describe the current problem. “What we have now, not just in Brazil but worldwide, is a division between two worlds. Polarization involves different positions in the same magnetic field, for example, whereas the current situation involves political positions that aren’t in the same field,” he said. “What it is in fact is a division into two fields that no longer accept the same rules for social coexistence. It’s not just a matter of the democratic rules of the game. In the specific case of democracy, the loser in an election won’t accept the victor’s legitimacy. But this acceptance is essential to a democracy.”

The situation is grave. “Violence and radicalization are very important here because instead of a civil war declared between two parties that fight on military terrain, they happen on political terrain,” he said. “This takes us to the brink. The rise of the far right in various parts of the world threatens our common ground, which is democracy as a rule-based system of social coexistence. The globalization of this political division is an indubitable fact. Many countries have already gone down the path of authoritarianism.”

There are many examples of authoritarian rule in the world. “India is probably the most troubling example. In Italy it’s no longer a threat but a reality. Support for authoritarianism is growing in France and the United States, just to take a few examples,” he said. 

He listed several aspects and dimensions of radical political change. “First, there are the political parties and how they functioned until the 1990s, when they began to fall apart. Then there’s the media. The central role of information is disappearing in some cases, if it hasn’t already. Elections at regular intervals are losing legitimacy. Moreover, the possibility of ignoring politics doesn’t exist, because it’s become a social mediator of enormous relevance to many walks of life. Lastly, it’s important to take into account the radical change in political campaigning,” he said.

The seventh chapter of FAPESP 60 Anos: A Ciência no Desenvolvimento Nacional was edited by Adorno and written by Ribeiro, Nobre, Lima, Monteiro and Maria Hermínia Tavares Almeida. 

Vanderlan S. Bolzani, President of ACIESP, and Adriano Andricopulo, its Executive Director, also took part in the online seminar.

A recording of the event can be watched at: youtube.com/watch?v=1UUR7PHKs4M.  


Source: https://agencia.fapesp.br/40358