Monday, July 27, 2009

Will Rio de Janeiro Be Held Responsible for the Violent Acts of Its Own Police Force?

In a ruling that could have major consequences on police violence and urban violence in Brazil, a court ruled that Rio de Janeiro was responsible for the stray bullet that hit Ana Maria Mendonça while she waited for a bus, and that the city must pay her $15,000 in damages. Judge Marco Antonio Ibrahim commented in the ruling:

"The city of Rio de Janeiro is caught up in a whirlpool of violence," Judge Marco Antonio Ibrahim said in his summation. "People are being assassinated by stray bullets in their homes, at bus stops, in schools, on beaches, and at football stadiums. Saying the state is not responsible is, in practice, blaming the victim."

Of course, the city has appealed the ruling, saying that "it cannot be held responsible for the 'omissions' of police officers." I have no idea how the appeal may play out, but it already seems that the judge's ruling is already on much stronger legal ground than the city's. If the police force is a part of the city's state apparatus, claiming that the city is not responsible for its own mechanisms is pretty ridiculous.

This may be one of the best ways to combat police impunity in Rio de Janeiro. While the state of Rio de Janeiro has recently taken several small steps in the effort to combat police violence, the city government has generally done little on its part to combat police violence; indeed mayors often win by appealing to the basest political rhetoric and policy that simplistically paints the favelas and the poor of Rio as the culprits of Rio's poverty and violence, rather than as victims. However, if the city is constantly having to defend itself against lawsuits alleging injury due to police carelessness, it could quickly force the city to start actively taking on a greater role in combatting police abuses, too.

With the appeal, the case could be overturned; again, it's hard to explain how the city is not responsible for its own security apparatus, but the ruling could also open the city to numerous lawsuits that it doesn't always deserve (after all, it isn't just the police who are armed in the favelas). Nonetheless, I think a member of Brazil's Lawyer's Association (the OAB, Organização dos Advogados do Brasil), Margarida Pressburger, hit the ruling's importance on the head:

Ms. Pressburger notes that the case ins [sic] not closed, and could well go all the way to the Supreme Court. But at the least, she says, authorities have been given a wakeup call."Finally, there is justice," she says. "We pay taxes so the state can guarantee our security. In the past, everyone has avoided taking responsibility. Now, someone has to pay."

Indeed - the innocent poor in the favelas and innocent bystanders nearby have paid enough. It's time for the city to start facing the consequences for its actions, too.