Chief, What Would You Do?

imagesCAQVK7Z7The following article depicts a new social trend. It should not surprise us the idea of “flash mobs” is now part of our culture. In the past, a flash mob can be gathered by social media — Hey, let’s all go to the union station tomorrow night at 8.” Most of us have seen the power of this concept in operation as large groups of teens have converged at a certain location and time. Often times more for social interaction as much as for political protest.

Years ago, we learned about “wilding,” when some groups of youths went to a park and terrorized others. Yet we have also been entertained by flash mobs singing, dancing and playing musical instruments in public places. But, when young people get together in large groups with no apparent sociable goal like singing or dancing, older folks get nervous and call police.

The story that follows comes from Sao Paulo, Brazil, and may be something that will soon challenge our local police. If you were the police chief, how would you handle this?                 

SÃO PAULO, Brazil — The images have already been so jolting to Brazil’s elites that President Dilma Rousseff has convened a meeting of top aides to form a response and business owners have obtained injunctions to shut them down: thousands of teenagers, largely from the gritty urban periphery and organizing on social media, going on raucous excursions through shopping malls.

Called rolezinhos (little strolls) in the slang of São Paulo’s streets, the rowdy gatherings may be going beyond mere flash mobs to touch on issues of public space and entitlement in a society in which living standards for the poor have improved and social classes are in flux.

 “Why don’t they want us to go inside malls?” asked Plinio Diniz, 17, a high school student who attended a rolezinho this month in Shopping Metrô Itaquera, a mall here where police officers used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the estimated crowd of 3,000. “We have the right to have fun, but the police went too far.”

Unnerved by the street protests that shook cities across the country last year, the authorities are carefully trying to evaluate ways to react to the gatherings, which began heightening in size and intensity in December. All too aware that the street protests mushroomed after the harsh police response, officials in Brasília, the capital, are warning against using force to dislodge teenagers from the malls.

“I don’t think repression is the best way forward, because everything done along that line is like throwing gasoline into the fire,” Gilberto Carvalho, a top aide to Ms. Rousseff, told reporters.

Fears of, say, vandalism and shoplifting notwithstanding, the police have reported only a few arrests associated with the rolezinhos. Still, police forces overseen by state governors seem in no mood for accommodation, and operators of some high-end malls have obtained court orders allowing their security personnel to bar participants.

Since the rolezinhos involve large numbers of dark-skinned teenagers, those moves have raised accusations of racial profiling as well as the nagging question of why shopping centers are such coveted sites of social interaction in São Paulo and other Brazilian cities where parks remain few and far between. “Kids from the lower classes have been segregated from public spaces, and now they’re challenging the unwritten rules,” said Pablo Ortellado, a public policy professor at the University of São Paulo. (To read more, CLICK HERE)

— Police leaders in a democracy have a responsibility to not only respond to and control events such as these, but also to provide input to community leaders on how to prevent such events from happening in the first place.

— This “upstream” responsibility is what makes democratic policing unique among the world’s policing systems. While police are at the end of the social control model (they arrest and jail offenders) while community education and value-reinforcing efforts are at the other, they must never fail to be able to enter into discussions regarding the responsibility of other.

— In a democratic society, police must be community and societal problem-solvers — suggesting and supporting proper responses to social disorder that goes far beyond “hooking and booking” offenders.

— That is why you will find me constantly talking about the need to have broadly educated police committed to civil rights and continuous improvement of all that they do. Today’s police leaders must also be well-informed (and have clearly thought out) the role poverty, racism, discrimination, failing educational systems, lack of jobs, unaffordable health care, and a growing gap between rich and poor has on a society. These are areas in our society which also must be improved upon.

— Therefore, police leaders must speak up in a clear, intelligent, and informed voice as not only the leader of the police, but also as a leader within the city in which they serve.