Friday, January 22, 2010

Law Enforcement - São Paulo style

There is a bewildering, veritable cornucopia of law enforcement agencies in Brazil. I thought Italy was bad. Here, there are municipal cops, traffic cops, park cops, financial cops, subway cops, federal cops and even environmental cops (officer, there's someone illegally pruning their leylandii - arrest them!). I can't work out which ones I am meant to take seriously, but I generally go by weapon size.

We were with the kids over on Nove de Julho this week, playing ball and writing our names and outlining the kids contorted body shapes crime scene-style on the roadside with sidewalk chalk. At one point a city cop (she had a small handgun and so was to be taken relatively seriously) approached our group. Within a split second, drinks bottles filled with petrol and paint thinner were stashed under small tee-shirts, down trousers or thrown into the bushes. I can understand why the officer came over: there were thirty children collected in one place, having fun and taking a break from mundanity. Threatening stuff indeed.

A confrontation ensued with one of the girls (who must have caused some trouble earlier), but a broad smile (and, I am guessing, the presence of three foreigners) was enough to diffuse the situation and she withdrew. It's rare. When the police tire with the presence of the children on the street, they generally undertake a clean-up of the streets Giuliani-style. The operation is comprised of:

(1) high-pressurized water apparatus (see to the right of the photo below)
(2) a dust cart
(3) two police cars
(4) a police minibus

It operates thus: the street cleaners use (1) to forcefully remove the children from the area affected, the police use (2) as a container in which to dispose of what meagre possessions the children have and (guns poised) use (3) and (4) to take away children who demonstrate an unwillingness to co-operate.

police keep watch over our hockey game with the kids
call for reinforcements!

I always found Giuliani's policy of eradicating Manhattan's homeless "problem" to be rather tasteless, but this literal cleansing of the streets smacks of the worst elements of what some have called his "dispiriting political vendetta" against the homeless. At least Giuliani purported to find shelters for the displaced. Here, the unruly spend a night getting roughed-up in the cells and are then hearded-off to another part of the city.

Someone else's problem.

POSTSCRIPT

Police brutality is not new or, of course, exclusive to Brazil, but I do not think I will ever be comfortable with the site of weapons drawn at even the most minor infraction. Parked on a double yellow? Guns drawn. I can empathise to a degree - especially in our neighbourhood - but the gung-ho attitude of most cops here smacks of a machismo which is distasteful in a force which at the same time is attempting to mirror the UK model of "community policing".

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