Our Channels

publication date


Behind lost time: the first National Public Security Conference and the democratic deficit in the discussion on Public Security in Brazil

André Luiz Rodrigues

Contact: arodrigues@www.iser.org.br

Those interested in the discussion about public security in Brazil have long realized that it is urgent that this topic be addressed from the point of view of democratic debate. This is because violence has become more than a problem for democracy: it is a problem for democracy in Brazil. The result is a situation of violations of fundamental rights on a large scale, which puts democracy at risk due to the affinity that public security in Brazil has with the characteristics of the state of exception. Whether democracy is a fiction or not, the fact is that its corollary is the establishment of peaceful coexistence between citizens (what modern politics in its foundations defined as the departure from the state of nature to the state of society). The trump card – and also the Achilles heel – of democracy as a political invention is its ability to pacify social life. This is perhaps (more than its ways of producing justice) the axial point of reflection on democracy.

What is at stake in this reflection is not the request that, given the name of a Democratic Rule of Law to a specific regime, a certain social configuration be established a priori. When we say, however, that we live in a Democratic State of Law, we define something to be pursued and evoked through some key words – (or values) –: rights, duties, equality, citizenship are some of these words that guide (or should guide) the public agenda if we are talking about living in a democratic regime. If security is a public good in our democratic state, its management and operation must be committed to this portfolio of values that underlie democracy. If we are dealing with a problem of democracy, it seems reasonable that the paths to solving this problem are dealt with within the democratic scope (especially because the alternative scenarios are not very promising: we would choose between barbarism, the radicalization of the authoritarian path and any other path that requires denying all available mechanisms and found new means).

After decades of managing public security policies from the perspective of force and repression, society is beginning to realize that this approach is ineffective, in addition to representing a contradiction of the Democratic Rule of Law. From contexts in which the authorities' lack of zeal in relation to this aspect of public life produces situations of absolute unpreparedness and extreme institutional fragility, to scenarios in which violence defines regrettable, if not dramatic, social dynamics, there is a long way to go before we can conclude that something is wrong in the way public security policies are conducted in Brazil. Many voices join in saying that the error lies in the fragile link between public security and democracy. What seems important, in this sense, is not the affirmation of democracy as a reified ideal model (based on an often exaggerated belief in its procedural potential), but rather the creation of participatory pathways that reinforce society's belonging to the public sphere and that make public goods (such as security) effectively public.

During the 27th and 31st of August 2009, Brasília was the stage for an unprecedented debate in Brazil: a discussion between police officers, guards, public security managers and society about the principles and guidelines that will guide the national public security policy.

The 1st National Public Security Conference (CONSEG) represented an opportunity to move towards the democratization of the field of public security and, thus, improve the Brazilian democratic experiment itself. Once the event has passed – the episodic aspect of what could become an event with some relevance to history – it is possible to begin the debate about its contributions and obstacles.

For an initial reflection on the 1st CONSEG, in these terms, I consider two dimensions to be fundamental: one methodological (that is, to what extent the methodological mechanisms adopted contributed to the construction of a participatory democratic process) and another substantive (about the dynamics of debates and of approved proposals).

The most notable and most frequently contested methodological aspect, especially by representatives of civil society, from what I have seen, concerns the parity established between managers, public security workers and civil society. The parameters that define that 30% of the participants are managers, another 30% are public security workers and 40% are civil society, ends up defining a situation in which 60% of the participants are public security operators, causing civil society to be sub- represented.

In substantive terms, the result of this distortion of parities resulted in a predominance of public security operators when it comes to establishing discussion agendas. An indication of this over-capacity of public security operators to guide the debate refers to the guideline approved with the highest vote (1095 votes): it is a proposal whose defense and articulation came expressly from public security agents, specifically, penitentiary officers . The text of the approved guideline follows:

"1. 6.6 A – Maintain a staff of permanent prison staff in the Prison System, with their management being specific to them, observing the proportionality of prison staff and criminal police officers. To this end: approve and implement Constitutional Amendment Proposal 308/2004; guarantee medical, psychological and social care for employees; implement training schools.”

In addition to demonstrating the overrepresentation of public security operators, the approval of this guideline, in my opinion, defines a perverse manifestation of the distortion in parities, because it goes in the opposite direction to that of the rhetoric of democratization, which even crosses the institutional discourse of the conference (expressed in its base text) in what defines, for example: the need to understand public security as a subject that does not only concern the police. Dealing with problems relating to the Brazilian penitentiary system with the first priority being the creation of another police force, the criminal police, represents a step back in the debate. We would hardly find the approval of the aforementioned Constitutional Amendment Proposal to be a more urgent need, if there were a perception survey among the participants of the 1st CONSEG, with regard to solving the serious problems faced by the Brazilian penitentiary system. In this same hypothetical survey, when asking about the main public security problems in Brazil today, I could bet that the non-approval of PEC 308/2004 would not even appear among the top ten priorities.

Therefore, I credit the approval of this guideline as receiving the most votes to the overrepresentation of public security professionals, which allowed them to have greater capacity to guide the debate. But it is not only the approval of this guideline that defined the imbalance between public security professionals. public security and civil society. The first four most voted guidelines have content aimed at the specific interests of public safety professionals. This is not to say that these proposals cannot have repercussions on the interests of civil society. These are, however, guidelines that do little to reflect the need to integrate approaches that go beyond the institutional modeling of police bodies. The first, already mentioned, deals with the creation of the criminal police, the second with the most votes deals with the autonomy of police experts, the third defines working conditions for Military Firefighters and the fourth with the exercise of the complete police cycle by federal police bodies and states.

Only in the seventh most voted guideline is there a concern with the creation of preventive policies in place of the current reactive and merely repressive policies. Even so, the text of this guideline presents as a basic solution a practice that in some cities in Brazil tries to assert itself as a model: community policing. This guideline is also silent regarding the need for consultation and constant participation of society as a premise for an effectively preventive and democratic public security system. In the text of this guideline that I reproduce below, it is possible to notice the priority of aspects of a strictly police nature, even when it comes to the focus on preventing violence.

“7. 5.2 C – Develop and encourage a culture of prevention in public security policies, through the implementation and institutionalization of community policing programs, focusing on three aspects: one, within security institutions, with studies, research, planning, security systems inspection and preventive policing, transparency in police actions, as well as the re-education and training of police forces; reducing the militarized posture; two, with educational prevention programs within schools, families, social and cultural movements and the community as a whole; three, supported by the development of social and intersectoral networks to create a broad prevention and safety network.”

It is possible to highlight several of the approved guidelines as manifestations of the predominance of the police approach in the debate, but this would exceed the limits of this short report, which does not remotely intend to exhaust the debate on the 1st CONSEG. One last approved guideline, however, deserves to be highlighted as a symptom of the police/civil society disproportion: the eighth most voted guideline which deals with the regulation of Municipal Guards as Municipal Police. Here, once again, a guideline intended to guide the national public security policy calls for the creation of yet another police force. The most serious thing is that this new police force would be created from an institution identified by much of the specialized bibliography as strategic for the creation of preventive policies less focused on police action: the Municipal Guards. For some time now, many voices have been trying to raise awareness about the fascination that the police, especially the military, have over the guards. Here it can be interpreted that the desire of municipal guards to become police officers is expressed, contradicting what would be the great difference of this institution in disseminating a preventive stance.

What should be on the discussion agenda is the de-policing of reflection on public security, giving way to its politicization – and here I want to defend de-policing not as the exclusion of the police approach in dealing with the issue, which would be reckless, but rather its flexibility and openness to integration with other spheres of the public arena – was replaced by the theme of demilitarization of the police. This topic, even though it is present on the agenda defended by civil society, was debated, at the 1st CONSEG, according to an articulation whose polarization mainly involved Military Police officers, on the one hand, and the soldiers of this institution, on the other. Between the two poles of this configuration, there were representatives of the Civil Police and civil society, tipping the balance in favor of demilitarization, a position defended by the Military Police officers.

From what I could observe, this debate was conducted from the point of view of an institutional reform of the police and not according to the demands of civil society in order to insert police institutions into the scenario of the Democratic Rule of Law, in relation to which police militarism represents a mismatch.

Following the same dynamics as the issue of demilitarization, the discussion about compliance with the full police cycle gained centrality in the topic and produced the same type of polarization, this time, opposing military and civilian police officers. The military police officers defended the performance of their corporation in a full police cycle, carrying out an investigative role in crimes with a small offensive potential. The civil police took a stand against the proposal, claiming that the Military Police would not be competent to operate in a full cycle. Once again, the debate had an excessively corporate character, contributing little to the final tasks of the conference.

The issue of the full police cycle also suggests another problem; this is of a methodological nature. Among the approved guidelines, there are two that are absolutely contradictory to each other: the fourth most voted guideline approves action in a full cycle, while the fifteenth most voted guideline defines the “Absolute rejection of the proposal to create the Complete Police Cycle”. It remains unknown how this contradiction will be overcome, since all approved guidelines guide what will be the national public security policy. Other guidelines also present contradictions, which can produce the impression that the national public security policy will have a character that is not organic in relation to the demands of society and is somewhat schizophrenic.

The interpretations I suggest here may, however, be somewhat myopic in nature. This is due to my interpretative limits and also to another questionable methodological aspect. Each working group – a moment in which the effectively democratic debate was held – was restricted to reflecting on issues relating to their thematic axes. This limitation had an impact on the possibility of a broader debate, especially with regard to the possibility of each participant interfering in discussions on other thematic axes. The interactive moments (there were two) would be the methodological tool designed to overcome this difficulty, if it weren't for the fact that they were not very… interactive. In the first interactive moment, participants could read and suggest corrections and glosses to the texts of the proposals prepared in each working group room. From what I could observe, however, these corrections, suggestions and glosses were barely assimilated in the reformulation of the proposals in the working groups. The second interactive moment, in turn, perhaps could not even have this name as a methodological tool, since it merely represented a moment of voting on the proposals. I do not consider a vote to be the most interactive and participatory of democratic mechanisms. The absence of a moment of broad democratic discussion on all axes may have favored the establishment of corporate and sectoral dynamics that were reflected in the approved principles and guidelines, some of which I proposed to discuss in this brief report.

The general interpretation that I propose, finally, concerns the fact that the 1st CONSEG was an event whose rhetoric proposed the character of a democratic call, but which little reflected the diversity of opinions and demands present in the debates promoted daily by civil society. Some methodological and substantive aspects were treated here in a preliminary and excessively brief manner. Other discussions must enter the public arena. This continuous and reflective debate will truly define the legacies of the 1st CONSEG.

To this general interpretation, we add the dissatisfaction of many instances of civil society in relation to the conference, manifested, even, in the stance of many segments of (which I consider a mistake) boycotting, and emptying the conference. In a meeting that took place during the conference, the civil society segments present sought to express their dissatisfaction, especially with regard to the establishment of the new CONASP, by Decree nº 6,950/09, which defines as an outcome of the 1st CONSEG the appointment of the components of its National Organizing Committee as provisional members of the Council. The mood of protest that set the tone at the beginning of the meeting was resolved by the national coordination of the 1st CONSEG, which responded to the criticisms of those present and ended up acclaimed by the plenary. The lack of forcefulness of civil society's positions that marked, as I tried to show, the tone of the conference was also expressed in this fragile manifestation of discontent with the conference.

The aspects evaluated here do not seek, however, to deny the important step represented by the 1st CONSEG. I believe that the main – and most immediate – change brought about by the conference was the vocalization of demands and agendas from sectors of the police that had long been isolated. For many of the public security professionals present, this was the first experience in which they were able to openly and freely express their opinions. We cannot underestimate the advancement represented by this aspect. However, this contribution would have been more fruitful if the 1st CONSEG had guaranteed the voices of civil society greater capacity to promote agendas and dialogues in the debate. The maintenance of the age of criminal responsibility, for example – a fundamental concern of civil society and one of its main flags – was only guaranteed in the thirty-third most voted guideline.

These are just some issues that can be covered in this brief report, other debates are necessary and I myself intend to deepen some points and carry out a deeper and more detailed discussion on the ten principles and forty guidelines approved at the 1st CONSEG.

ISER collaborator Andre Luiz Rodrigues is a master's student in Political Science at the University Research Institute of Rio de Janeiro – IUPERJ and a participant in the Laboratory of Studies in Political Theory at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. He has experience in the area of Political Science, with an emphasis on Political Theory and Philosophy of Law.