Police vs. Desire? Police Brutalities in Italy

Dr Vincenzo Scalia

Since 2001, when the brutalities committed by the Italian police during the G8 in Genoa became internationally known, awareness of police brutalities has also spread among the Italian public. Italian NGOs active in the defense of civil liberties, in particular Antigone and A Buon Diritto, developed a monitoring network which relies on voluntary activists and lawyers, so as to encourage both the victims and their family to make the cases known. Moreover, associations of police brutality victims, such as Associazione Contro gli Abusi in Divisa (ACAD, Association against police brutalities) became active in the creation of a monitoring network about police brutalities. .

Cases were provided by Italian lawyers belonging to the network to the researchers which concern episodes of police brutalities which occurred across the country. By accessing to some of the most serious 37 cases provided by lawyers, related to brutalities occurring between 2010 and 2015, it was possible to analyse in depth the more recent police brutalities occurring in Italy. We add to these 37 cases also the tragic case of Federico Aldrovandi, the 17 year old youth from Ferrara who died from police brutalities, in September 2005. This latter case is added because it marks a watershed in the perception of police brutalities by the public. The death of an Italian, middle class youth from police brutalities, was indeed a shock for a public opinion which has been relatively tolerant to police  brutalities against immigrants and political activists.

In our research we were able to detect that cases resulting in police brutality involved conflict between policing (and the activity aimed at maintaining public order) and desire. The latter term  refers to those leisure activities of the cities related to the lifestyle of young people, immigrants and working class youth, who attend disco clubs and use drugs, as well as to football supporters who express sub-cultural identities by their belonging to ultras group or football supporters firms. We identified two different categories of dynamics underpinning police brutalities. The first one could be defined as on call. We are referring to the cases when the police intervene after the call of some resident. Such calls usually follow the hearing of noise by the residents of those districts without leisure venues, who associate the noise in the street with fights, drug-related matters and illegal behaviours in general. The second category is defined patrol, it refers to the brutalities Italian police forces commit while patrolling working class areas and enacting stop and search activities. These cases demonstrate more class and race bias, as the victims of brutalities are more common among the ranks of working class and, underclass’ (such as precarious workers and immigrants) than among middle-class Italians. This typology of brutalities on call/patrol follow the securitarian mood which has molded the action of Italian governments of different political majorities since 1990s.  On call cases answer the request of help by intervention by citizens, and often end up with the police dealing with mainstream Italians, who behave “eccentrically”. On patrol brutalities cases concern interventions in marginal areas, where police officers expect to find some unusual behaviour.

The outcome of police brutalities is death in the majority of cases reviewed (20 out of 38). In recent years, the mobilization of civil society has encouraged the families of the victims in their claims for justice, both by raising public awareness, and by providing them with legal and financial support, as well as with helping in gathering evidence. It was in this way possible to achieve a conviction of the police forces who killed Federico Aldrovandi, and to carry forward the case of Stefano Cucchi who died from injuries sustained following  his arrest and a period in custody. Despite these positive changes, there still is a long way to go to in order to prevent such brutalities from occuring and to reverse the mood of that part of the Italian public who deems such behaviour necessary for the police to enact a law and order oriented behaviour.

Firstly, the anti-torture law that the Italian parliament passed in 2017 is quite weak, as it punishes torture only in cases where it was done by more than one person or, if there is only one aggressor, in cases where there are repeated instances of torture, and does not see torture as a crime committed by institutional actors, but, rather, by individuals. The reason for such a belated approval is due both to the fact that the foundations of the Italian penal law date back to Fascism (Rocco Act, 1930) and to the resistance to pass an act which could result into a limitation of the action of police. This latter aspect draws its consent from the idea, quite popular among the Italian public, that an unrestrained police force will be fighting corruption and organized crime more efficiently. Secondly, in Italy, there does not exist such a thing as an Independent Office for Police Conduct, making it difficult to investigate and ascertain the responsibilities of police forces. All the enquiry commissions are internal, and are quite reluctant to pass documents to the magistrates, or to the lawyers, in order to protect police forces. As a consequence of this, it is hard to prosecute police officers who committed brutalities (Della Porta, 1998). Thirdly, there is a dominating securitarian mood in Italian public opinion, whose main standpoint is that police forces always protect the public from major dangers, such that questioning their modus operandi means to undermine public order. This attitude is strongly supported by many political forces but has its strongest advocates among the right wing forces, in particular among the Northern League who were ruling the country until August 2019 in a securitarian coalition with the populist Five Star Movement. Finally, there is a class and race division with regards to the ascertaining of police brutalities. The case which were brought to the knowledge of public opinion concern Italian, middle class victims, whereas there is a “dark number” of migrants, roma and ‘underclass’ victims who die from police brutalities, whose identity is uncertain and who hardly have any justice, even a post-mortem. The awareness of police brutalities among the Italian public is still at its first stage. On the one hand, it has massively increased in these late years. On the other hand, it has to deal with both legislative limits and with a widespread populist mood.

Dr Vincenzo Scalia is a Reader in Criminology at the University of Winchester. Email: Vincenzo.Scalia@winchester.ac.uk Twitter: @scaliavincenzo

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