The indictment of police officer Luis Chocobar for homicide for fatally shooting an assailant involved in a violent assault and robbery in December and his subsequent defense by the government has sparked an open-ended debate about what constitutes proper policing.
Security Minister Patricia Bullrich has lead the government’s response in defense of Chocobar, insisting that it reflects the government’s thinking about how the police should be treated when lethal violence is used by police forces. That position has been met with concerns in the opposition and civil society.
Chocobar was indicted last week by a judge and given a 400,000-peso fine on the charge of “aggravated homicide” with a firearm while committing “excesses” in self-defense. Chocobar shot 18-year-old Juan Pablo Kukoc in December after ordering him to stop while he was running away from the scene of a crime. Seconds earlier, Kukoc had an American tourist, Joseph Wolek, with an underage accomplice. Wolek was stabbed ten times after resisting the robbery and had to be rushed to a hospital in critical condition.
Chocobar, a local police officer in the Greater Buenos Aires district of Avellaneda, was passing by when he was was alerte of the robbery.
He gave chase to the thieves, eventually shooting and arresting Kukoc three blocks from where the robbery took place. Kukoc died in a hospital days later and his accomplice was later arrested and has been charged by the judge.
Chocobar was arrested immediately after the incident, and was released soon after. He said that he fired his weapon after Kukoc turned around to face him, although a footage from a security camera release last week seems to suggest that Kukoc was running away from Chocobar, holding a knife, when he was shot.
The Security Ministry has said that the video has been unfairly edited.
Ever since Chocobar’s indictment, the Macri administration has come to the police officer’s defense, criticizing the judge’s ruling and more pointedly seeking to change the existing approach to violence involving the police. Macri welcomed Chocobar to the Casa Rosada and Cabinet chief Marcos Peña and Justice Minister Germán Garavano also openly expressed their support for Chocobar.
In a lengthy interview on Radio Con Vos, Security minister Bullrich said that this case “confirms the idea that our government has, and that is that the security forces officers are not the primary culprits when there’s a confrontation – as they have been for many years. We’re changing this doctrine, the doctrine of blaming the police officer. We’re building the doctrine that the state is the body that prevents crime. There can be police officers who do so incorrectly but the principle is to reverse the burden of proof. Up till now, any police officer who was in a confrontation was put jail. We’re changing the doctrine and there are judges who don’t understand that. We’re going to change the Criminal Code. We’re going to remove the figure of legitimate self-defense for police officers, because that only applies in very few cases.”
And she continued: “To give you some context, two police officers were gunned down in the last two weeks. One in Entre Ríos during an operation against human trafficking, and another in Corrientes against organized crime. We’re facing criminals that do not have any qualms about shooting and killing police officers. Based on this we think that the… what the president does is to support the idea in the form of Chocobar.”
The Security minister argued that it is necessary to change how the police is treated in Argentina because otherwise officers are likely to avoid getting involved if there’s a chance that they will face time in jail for using their weapons or carrying out arrests.
“This is our position. We were elected for this, to propose a different kind of criminal policy to the one that in our opinion caused an increase in drug trafficking and generated impunity. We have the right to change it, you have the right to challenge it,” she said as she finished the interview with journalist Ernesto Tenembaum.
Backing up the Security minister was her counterpart in the City, Martín Ocampo, who also defended Chocobar’s actions and said in an interview with TN that “we believe that this discussion is a discussion that has to take place in Argentina. We’re coming out of years in which the police was punished… in which there was a sort of suspicion about the police. We have to end that. We have to give them tools to work and political backing. What we’re doing from the City, Provincial and the National government is to provide our support to the police forces so that they continue, because that work requires commitment. We see police officers getting shot all the time.”
The Cambiemos coalition governs in the city of Buenos Aires, in the Province of Buenos Aires and the federal government and Ocampo is in regular contact with provincial authorities over policing matters. Ocampo has also overseen the fusion of the Federal and Metropolitan police forces to create the City Police.
Today, Chocobar’s lawyer and Prosecutor Ricardo Sáenz both requested an appeals court to drop the charges against Chocobar according to Télam. Judges on the appeals court now have five days to issue a ruling on whether the charges should stick at least for now or not.
The sensitive nature of how police officers use potentially lethal force and the Chocobar case in particular has stirred up criticism from the opposition and experts in criminal issues.
City Legislator Myriam Bregman of the leftist PTS (Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas), responded by saying that first, “with the (Santiago) Maldonado case Bullrich introduced the doctrine of the reversal of the burden of proof: the Border Guard or whoever is repressing is right. Whoever says the opposite has to prove it. She’s putting the state apparatus and the courts to cover-up and re-direct evidence.”
Adding that the minister is unleashing a “wave of trigger-happy police and repression,” Bregman, who is also a human rights lawyer, added that “neither the Santiago Maldonado nor the Rafael Nahuel cases were confrontations (with the armed forces): those are crimes by the state. There wasn’t a confrontation in the Kukoc case either. It’s a bread and butter case of a trigger-happy police officer.”
Two members comfortably to the left of Cambiemos, Lawmaker Horacio Pietragalla of the Frente para la Victoria and Senator Fernando “Pino” Solanas of Proyecto Sur separately filed complaints against Macri and Bullrich for apología del delito – which roughly translates in legal terms to making a public defense or exhibiting support for a crime.
“The search for truth whenever blood is spilled has been sidetracked by the division between Argentines that started with that infamous phrase from the Kirchnerite era that said that ‘high crime rate was just a perception,’ to the trigger-happy cops of Security minister Patricia Bullrich and that have approved of by President Mauricio Macri” said Solanas, who also named Bullrich in the complaint. Pietragalla went one step further, naming Macri, Bullrich and Cabinet Chef Marcos Peña for apología del delito as well as for covering-up of the alleged crime.
Civil society organizations have also expressed their concerns. Speaking to Perfil.com, Darío Kosovsky of the Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales y Sociales (INECIP) said that “what Bullrich says about this being the way police officers operate all over the world is a total fallacy. That is the way an authoritarian police acts. In no way does this mean that I’m approving of crimes. But you cannot divide society into good guys and bad guys by changing police doctrine. That’s a simplification. The act of committing a crime is far more complex. They’re framing the debate as if the only way to solve the problem is by killing people. The new ‘police doctrine’, in that way, is old.”
For the CELS, (Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales), the government has sought to “spark a public debate around the idea that there is a ‘garantismo‘ (rights-based system) that leads to the impunity for criminals and that the alternative to that is to ‘take the shackles off’ the police so that they can act without respecting the rules.
“This false dichotomy is exposed by the fact that the other assailant, who was able to escape initially, was later found and arrested.”