National Assembly consideration of legislation to allow the National Police and prison staff to use more force to subdue suspected criminals and inmates has sparked an “unprecedented” level of public interest. On Friday, Assembly President Virgilio Saquicela postponed the beginning of formal debate until Tuesday due to the volume of public comments.
“More than 1,300 people, public officials and local citizens, have sent formal comments to the Assembly to be considered in the matter,” said chairman of the Assembly’s Security Commission Ramiro Narváez. “These must be taken into account as we debate changes involving the progressive use of force.”
Among those pressing the Assembly to give police, prison guards and other public security officers more discretion in the use of force, including deadly force, are President Guillermo Lasso and mayors of several major cities.
“We are suffering a crisis of criminal activity in our country and current law gives criminals more rights than the police,” says Guayaquil Mayor Cynthia Viteri. “It’s time to give the police the tools they need to protect the public. They should be allowed to use whatever force is necessary, including the right to shoot murderers.”
Guayaquil, Manta and Esmeraldas have experienced a 300 percent increase in murders, many of them conducted in hit-may style, since 2020. The government blames gangs associated with Mexican and Colombian drug cartels for the violence which is also sparked riots in the nation’s prisons.
In November, Lasso called on legal revisions to protect police from prosecution when they use firearms against suspects. At least three police officers are serving prison terms for using deadly force during attempts to make arrests.
According to Narváez, there is strong support in the Assembly to change the current law although the extent of the changes are in dispute. “There is legitimate concern about the use of force during political protests that turn violent,” he said. “During the October 2019 protests against the [President Lenin] Moreno government, many thought that criminal activity such as arson and theft were tolerated due to the reluctance of police to intervene. On the other hand, many thought that the police used excessive force.”
Narváez added that there appears to be consensus against the use of deadly force during protests. “We must balance this consideration with the need to protect people and property.”
Among the proposed changes to the Law on the Progressive Use of Force is allowing more police discretion in the use of firearms and the reduction of penalties for policemen convicted “overuse of force.”
Other proposals include arming prison guards and providing training for responding to riots.