Rossella Selmini: “Repressive and zero-tolerance policing models create conflict and undermine trust”

Rossella Selmini is Associate Professor of Criminology at the University of Bologna, Department of Legal Sciences. She was previously a professor at the University of Minnesota (USA) and director of the Department of Urban Security and Local Police within the Regional Government of Emilia-Romagna. She was president of the European Society of Criminology from 2015 to 2018.

1. What are the defining elements of a police model?

The literature on policing identifies several elements that define a policing model. Among them, I consider it particularly important to identify three elements: the general principles that should guide the model, the organisation of the forces and the functions attributed to them.

2. Which of the existing police models do you think is the best for maintaining peaceful coexistence and a safe society?

In contemporary western societies, although with striking differences linked to national and local peculiarities, two models in particular have been consolidated: the so-called “zero tolerance” and that of community policing. They have some overlapping aspects but are different in terms of the fundamental principles guiding police actions. In the community policing model, the principles of service to the community, the relationship with the community, with all its components, including minorities and the younger generation, the creation of a relationship of trust, the prevalent use of conflict negotiation and the use of repression as an ultima ratio all prevail. These principles should govern the various units of police organisations, from administrative policing to judicial policing, public order control and crime prevention. Moreover, in view of the results of the research, I believe that this model is the best and this is reinforced by the fact that it has been shown to be the one that most adequately guarantees peaceful coexistence, offering security to citizens and increasing the trust in and legitimacy of the police.

Repressive and zero-tolerance models, on the other hand, create conflicts and undermine trust, particularly among the most vulnerable groups in society, reinforcing the culture of intolerance and fear, without, for their part, making a significant contribution to crime control. In light of the most recent debate on police downsizing, a community policing model can even be envisaged, in which some particularly sensitive functions that are still carried out by the police today ─mental illness, general social imbalances─ are referred to other agencies of a non-police nature. On the other hand, within the framework of a community policing model, public order functions must also be resized and kept within the limits strictly compatible with the exercising of civil and political rights.

3. Beyond judicial control, what external supervision should police organisations have? What are the consequences of these controls?

The issue of police accountability is particularly important in Southern European countries, which generally focus the control of police operators on internal disciplinary control and that of the judicial authority. I am convinced that a third body, intermediate between internal and judicial control, would be useful to ensure an independent evaluation. A body of this type should include experts and members of the local community and civil society. This form of control – endowed with the necessary power of intervention – should ensure the reduction of impunity, which is the most common consequence of police abuse and violence.

4. Under what circumstances should the police change its model if it is not considered valid, and who should be in charge of the change: professionals, government or citizens?

I do not believe that particular circumstances need to be present to modify a police model: practically all police models, particularly in some European countries, including France, Italy and Spain, need radical reforms, whether in the control of ordinary crime or especially in the control of public order and relations with ethnic minorities. Discriminatory behaviour, abuse and excessive use of force are frequent phenomena in the three countries mentioned above and are phenomena that require a more radical change in the organisation of the forces, their culture and accountability, not limited to cosmetic reforms (for example: greater attention to the selection methods or professional training are important but not sufficient).

I believe that a reform of a policing model cannot be effective if it does not start from an extensive consultation with citizens, including ethnic minorities and the most vulnerable people, on the reform model as is being attempted –with many difficulties– in some American cities following the murder of George Floyd. It should be up to the local community, with the possible assistance of experts, to determine the policing model it wants, and this model should then be discussed with the legislative bodies.


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