Chile’s Lower House has approved a bill to modify laws governing Chile’s police force. The proposed changes would expand the circumstances in which it is lawful for police to use lethal force. A history of power abuse by the police makes it a controversial decision.
On March 29, Chile’s Lower House of Congress approved the rewritten Naín and Retamal laws. The proposed new laws, accepted by a large majority, include possible new powers for the Carabineros, Chile’s national police force.
The so-called “privileged self-defense” principle would expand the situations in which police officers may use their service weapons. After being approved in the Lower House, the bill now goes to the Senate for additional review, and possibly modification.
Under the proposed laws’ privileged self-defense principle, police officers would be entitled to use their service weapons in the following hypothetical scenarios:
- When responding to aggression by someone who is using or threatening to use a knife, firearm, or any sharp, pointed, or blunt object apt to cause death or serious bodily injury to the police officer or to another person.
- When responding to aggression that is perpetrated by a group of two or more persons, and the officer reasonably estimates that the action has the potential for death or injury.
- To prevent or attempt to prevent the commission of certain crimes, such as: kidnapping, rape, patricide, femicide, murder, castration, mutilation, and in certain cases of robbery.
In addition, there would be greater penalties for those who attack the Carabineros.
A history of human right abuses and illegitimate use of force by the Carabineros make the modifications a sensitive topic – even more so in light of several scandals in recent years:
- the Paco Leaks, a hack that revealed the surveillance and monitoring of organizations and activists by the police;
- Operation Huracán, a set-up organized by the Carabineros to falsely incriminate eight members of the Mapuche community; and
- the Paco Gate scandal, the embezzlement of almost CLP $28 billion (over US $35 million) by Carabineros officers.
In the wake of the Estallido Social, Chile’s social uprising in 2019, and the systematic violations of human rights committed by Carabineros during the uprising, calls to dismantle – or at least reform – Chile’s police institution, have grown louder. Choosing to grant that same institution more (lethal) power is regarded by many as a reason for concern. Communist Party deputy Boris Barrera said that the law is “left too open,” leaving the “possibility that mistakes or abuses may be committed.”
Those who study the matter also doubt the effectiveness of the measures. Francisco Cox, a prominent criminal lawyer, said in an interview with Radio ADN Radio that “what worries me about the law of privileged legitimate defense for Carabineros is the equivalent of the U.S. law, stand-your-ground, which produced more ‘trigger-happy’ police; more people shot and killed. Giving more power to the police and lowering controls is a recipe for failure.”
Consuelo Contreras, director of the Instituto Nacional de Derechos Humanos, also expressed her concern: “The new regulation could, in practice, favor impunity for the police and make it difficult for investigations to be carried out on police officers. In addition to the rule on privileged self-defense, the bill contains provisions that constitute setbacks in human rights standards, that also do not solve the operational problems of police work, and that may have effects that cannot yet be foreseen.”
Despite the controversial nature of the laws, the government has chosen to support the changes. Carolina Tohá, Minister of the Interior, called on the ruling parties to vote in favor of the rewritten laws, in spite of having objections to it.
“Although we [the government] have objections with several of the formulations of [the laws], because they do not seem well formulated and because we believe that the same objective can be obtained with other, much more precise formulations, we still give this bill our support, we will vote in favor and we will continue improving it in the Senate.”