Argentina was still analyzing the repercussions of the G20 Leaders Summit on Monday morning when a new event took over the public conversation by storm: the Security Ministry lead by Patricia Bullrich published a resolution relaxing the criteria for federal security forces to use their firearms.
The resolution immediately became a contentious topic, as, among other cases, allows officials to shoot when: they intend to stop a person who poses “imminent danger to other people; or to prevent that person from fleeing a scene of crime.” Moreover, the third article of said resolution indicates that officials will be exempted from compelling suspects to stop in the cases when doing so “poses a risk of death or serious injury to other people;” when the life of officials or their physical well-being could be jeopardized by doing so, or when it is “clearly inadequate or pointless, given the circumstances of the case.”
Several human rights NGOs were quick to condemn the decision, warning that they will challenge its legality. “The document does nothing but neutralizing judicial control. The government’s decision goes against Homeland Security Law and the UN’s Code of Conduct,” an official from CELS told Página 12.
But the measure does not come out of the blue: it is part of a broader initiative from the government, which has repeatedly shown willingness to adopt more tough-on-crime policies, and has found in Patricia Bullrich an eager spearhead.
The resolution does not give officials “carte blanche” to fire at will. The criminal code establishes that officers will not be punished if they “acted in fulfillment of a duty or legitimate exercise of a right, authority or charge.” And what this document is doing, in this case, is expanding the definition of “duty.”
In a press release issued on Tuesday, the Ministry indicated that the former statute determined that, “in the cases where an officer is trying to impede the commission of a serious crime that jeopardizes the lives or physical integrity of third parties or themselves, they must wait until aggressors shoot at them before being allowed to use their weapons.”
This new resolution, then, is not changing the law, but telling law enforcement that, in their eyes, they would be fulfilling their duty if they acted in a way described in the document. Their actions don’t exempt them from an eventual conviction but, by indicating they followed its institutional stance, could influence the decision of a court.
Likely anticipating the impact the decision would have in the public conversation, Bullrich went on a media tour on Monday night to justify it: “the doctrine ruling over our forces put them in a position of weakness, turning them into perpetrators every time they acted,” the minister said in an interview with Radio Con Vos. Why do we have police officers? Why do they conceal weapons? To defend the people,” added Bullrich, who then assured that all scenarios described in the resolution are in accordance with protocols approved by the UN.
Although as mentioned, courts have the last word, the government also intends to expand legal definitions that will guide their judgements. The initiative to reform the country’s criminal code, which is likely to be introduced next year, is set to further expand the actions that are considered to be exceptions to crimes. According to Infobae, the article indicating it will not be criminally punished who “acted in fulfillment of a duty or legitimate exercise of a right, authority or charge,” will be added the following paragraph. “[or]A law enforcement official who, fulfilling his or her duty and using their standard issued weapons, cause injures or death.”
“There is established jurisprudence about the issue, with many rulings from different courts. We have turned them into law. That will pave the way for many cases,” a member of the drafting commission told Infobae.
Perhaps the most illustrative stance from the government with regards to this issue is minister Bullrich’s staunch defense of police officer Luis Chocobar, who was been indicted by three different courts for aggravated homicide using a firearm with excessive force while on duty.
Last December, Chocobar shot 18-year-old Juan Pablo Kukoc after ordering him to stop while he was running away from the scene of a crime. Seconds earlier, Kukoc had violently assaulted 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. Kukoc died in hospital four days after after being struck by two bullets.
This scenario, in fact, is described practically word by word in the resolution.
While Bullrich defended her initiative, other government officials have come out to do damage control. Interior Minister Rogelio Frigerio said it is “far from being a license to kill,” and is actually aimed at “protecting the people.”
Used to a “trial and error” strategy, the government may take note of the popular reaction to the decision and determine whether to move forward with it or not. They know, however, that it has indeed worked for Brazil’s incumbent president, Jair Bolsonaro.