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Rubber bullet ban won’t solve Spain’s policing problem

Recent street demonstrations – against the government, or to celebrate football games – have exposed the need for better relations between police and the Spaniards they are supposed to be protecting.


Members of the Basque police force, the Ertzaintza, look on as demonstrators remember Iñigo Cabacas.

As Spain’s Basque Country continued to reel from the death of 28-year-old Iñigo Cabacas, the region’s interior department announced plans to restrict the use of rubber bullets as of January 1, 2013.

An autopsy revealed that Cabacas died after receiving a rubber bullet to the head during riots following Athletic Bilbao’s Europa League victory against Schalke 04 on April 5. The claim by the Ertzaintza, the Basque regional police, that no rounds were fired from a distance of less than 22 metres is contradicted by the conclusions of the autopsy report, which shows the fatal shot to have been fired from a much smaller distance.

The rubber bullet restriction announcement by Basque interior chief Rodolfo Ares comes at an interesting time given the present climate of unrest in Spain, not to mention elsewhere in the western world. The level of autonomy in the Basque Country means the measure will not affect the rest of Spain, in the short term. Spanish Interior Minister Jorge Fernández Díaz announced he had taken “careful note” of the incident in Bilbao. He had been even more coy about the “excesses” carried out by police during an otherwise peaceful march against budget cuts held in Valencia earlier this year.

Austerity measures in that region saw several already under-funded schools left without lighting and even heating during the winter months. Yet there is some shockingly brutal footage of police treatment of demonstrators, many of whom were parents of school children with arguably every right to be livid.

Incidents like those seen in Valencia are only set to rise in Spain given the hammering taken by its economy in the current recession.

Prior to a similar student protest against cuts held in London in November 2011, Scotland Yard announced the unusual decision to allow riot offers to deploy rubber bullets – if deemed necessary. London’s police also considered the use of ‘baton rounds’ during the riots of last August. On both those occasions, however, they were never used.

“Throwing away” relations?

The now infamous riots of last summer, initially a reaction to the police shooting of Mark Duggan which declined into acts of widespread violence and free-for-all looting, were probably among the most shameful four days in England’s recent history. Unsurprisingly perhaps, London’s police were criticised in several quarters for their apparent inability to contain rioters. Anyone who saw news coverage of the disturbances will recall images of retreating officers, clearly outnumbered and outmanoeuvred. If there were any occasion on which the use of rubber bullets to protect police safety could be justified, surely it was then?

Yet for the Metropolitan Police, the employment of such heavy-handed tactics, whatever the circumstances, would require a pay-off far greater than the sacrifice; something which Met Police Commissioner Steven Kavanagh likened to “throw(ing) away 180 years of policing with communities…” and tantamount to “chang(ing) the way we police.”

In point of fact, the only place in the UK where rubber bullets have been used was in Northern Ireland during The Troubles. Their use was linked to several deaths and, suffice to say, did little for community relations.

Every demonstration will have its opportunists simply spoiling for a fight and police must be fully equipped to deal with them, though their ultimate goal is keeping the peace.

An expensive peace

But given that the Spanish Civil Guard purchased a total of 100,000 rubber bullets in anticipation of this year’s austerity marches – allegedly at a price of 99 cents each, the irony of which hardly needs explaining  – it is hard to defend police action as non-confrontational.

The ruling by the Basque regional government does not ban the use of baton rounds entirely. It speaks of restricting their use to specialist units in “exceptional circumstances”, though the criteria for determining such a context remains unclear. New measures will also see the introduction of “more accurate” bullet launchers and units will receive 18 months’ training as opposed to 12.

Yet all this still supposes that any accidents or deaths caused by rubber bullets until now were the result of unwitting inaccuracy on the part of police (since 1990, 23 people in Spain have lost an eye after receiving a hit from a rubber bullet). But if the recent unrest in Valencia shows us anything, it is that until Spanish police abandon their role as fear-inspirers and realize the importance of positive community relations, no amount of restrictions can entirely prevent another needless death, like that of Iñigo Cabacas.

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Published: Apr 18 2012
Category: Featured, Politics, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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