*By Marcelo Batista Nery and Sergio Adorno
On October 25th, we celebrate democracy. This date brings to mind the year 1975 and the tragic murder, under torture, of journalist Vladimir Herzog, who volunteered to testify at the Information Operations Detachment – Internal Defense Operations Center (DOI-CODI), a political repression subordinated to the Army. This episode reminds us of the times of the civil-military dictatorship (1964-1988), a regime that, by its nature, radically opposes the principles that govern democracies.
The trajectory of democracy is intrinsically linked to the past. According to recent studies carried out by political scientist John Keane, its roots manifested themselves in the form of popular self-government in the East, in geographic areas that today correspond to Syria, Iraq and Iran. Later, around 1500 BC, it migrated to east, reaching part of the Indian subcontinent. It also expanded westwards towards Byblos and Sidon, before reaching Athens, around the 5th century BC, establishing a Western tradition that has reinvented itself in the modern era.
The revolutionary movements of the late 18th century produced radical changes throughout the dominant aristocratic edifice in western and central Europe, transforming social inequalities into a political problem and expanding the social bases of participatory and decision-making processes. In general terms, modern democracy is based on the principles of freedom, equality and isonomy. It maintains complex relationships with the market and the economy, with society and politics, through its institutions, and is supported by a political culture that values rights for a greater number of people, regardless of socioeconomic, racial and ethical cleavages, of gender and generation. Its biggest challenge is to live with two obstacles: on the one hand, the persistence of social inequalities, including power between citizens; on the other, the persistence of authoritarian inclinations of its rulers.
In the same period, modern society saw the birth of the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), reaffirmed in 1948 with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations General Assembly. Although the origins of both processes are not the same, human rights and democracy are increasingly intertwined. Human rights principles and agendas constitute a catalog of initiatives capable of tackling precisely two obstacles: social and rights inequalities, as well as limits to authoritarian power.
The list of rights is extensive and has been expanding with the recognition of new subjects subject to protection by laws, public policies and governments. They comprise classic civil rights, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association, the right to come and go, protection of privacy and intimacy, as well as protection from a myriad of violations, which include cruelty, discrimination, misogyny, genocide, forced migration, arbitrary detention, wars and terrorism. In this scenario, the right to security and justice has established itself as one of the fundamental human rights and one of the guarantees of the existence of safe societies, with quality of life, equal rights and without restrictions on civil and public freedoms.
However, as modern societies have become more complex, security problems have also become more present and equally complicated. In many national societies, the growth of delinquency and organized crime, intentional killings, attacks on private and personal property, affect feelings of insecurity and compromise the legitimacy of agencies responsible for legal control of public order. This scenario includes societies like Brazil. However, here, these problems seem to be aggravated due to the historical and unique characteristics of the police structure and organization, which include a high fatality rate in confrontations with those suspected of having committed crimes, a considerable opacity in their actions and a weak external control over its activities and the operations of its agents.
Police corporations remain largely closed, despite pressure from organized civil society and human rights policies to become more transparent and accountable. More recently, this situation has worsened with the inclination of many of them towards far-right ideologies. The partisanship and ideologization of part of the institutional body are problems for the persistence of democracy with its values and principles. However, it is possible to find answers at the heart of this challenging context.
Despite the persistence of strong traits inherited from the authoritarian past and rooted in the institutions of law and order, it is undeniable that there are changes underway, certainly due to the direction of democracy in this society. Today, it has been observed that there are police officers who join the police force with a higher level of education compared to the recent past. Many of them have completed secondary education, some even have an academic background adapted to the new times, although not always suited to the nature of the activities they need to carry out as police officers.
Furthermore, some police officers appear to be more connected with society's problems, especially those related to inequalities in large urban outskirts. They are able to see themselves as part of their network of social relationships, active participants in society and involved in community and civil society movements. Everything indicates that they seek to stay updated on different views of security problems, consulting sources other than corporate ones. Although these changes are still small in scale, they indicate an evolution in the role and mentality of police officers, who are slowly becoming more aware of the complex dynamics between security and citizenship.
Once we understand the importance of security agents (and potential artisans) for democracy, it is crucial to also understand that we are in the information age and that, since the beginning of this era, science and technology have been present in almost every aspect. of these dynamics. On the one hand, they alert us to many of the dangers that threaten societies and individuals; on the other, they provide the basis for the development of information technologies (IT) capable of analyzing, planning and executing the daily activities of police forces responsible for ensuring public order and security. Furthermore, these ITs can diagnose and adapt police practices in order to minimize the oppression practiced against the most vulnerable citizens in the population, as well as corruption and complicity in crime and omission.
Despite the current setbacks faced by democracy, not only in Brazil, tackling serious security problems necessarily involves institutional reforms. Although this is a task for other agents, such as professional politicians, government officials, planners and executors of public security policies, together with organized civil society, it is undeniable that the main agents are the police officers who, committed to democratic values and respect for human rights, are able to employ new ITs and promote changes both in the structure of police organizations and in broader social dynamics, including the rejection of relationships and practices inherited from the authoritarian regime.
Marcelo Batista Nery is a researcher at the ABES Think Tank, coordinator of Technology Transfer and Head of the PAHO/WHO Collaborating Center (BRA-61) at the Center for Violence Studies at the University of São Paulo.
Sergio Adorno is Full Professor of Sociology at FFLCH (Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences at the University of São Paulo) and Scientific Coordinator at NEV-CEPID/USP.