The third part of the report will not be devoted to a specific case, but to a more general category of law enforcement actions: the raid.
A retata (raid) is defined as the “arrest of several persons (suspected of a crime, or suspected or dangerous, or otherwise targeted) in the same environment or area by the police”.
The term has been adapted from the fishing language; the most important dictionary of the Italian Risorgimento, Tommaseo, defined it as: “a throw of the net; or the catch of the fish enclosed in the net, each time it is thrown and pulled”.
And these images still permeate police action today: a trawl, operations with dozens, sometimes hundreds of arrests, with an excessive deployment of forces. It can be assumed that they are also demonstrative actions, since such an organization is rarely necessary; and in such situations even the most zealous magistrate may find it arduous to substantiate the deprivation of liberty; and how there is a risk that the police may be failing in their essential task of protecting the individual rights.
The main focus of the raids is on two offences that generate particular social alarm. They may be linked to drug trafficking offences; or related to mafia-type associations. Therefore, only cases of multiple arrests for crimes involving drug trafficking or mafia-type associations have been selected.
Therefore, in an attempt to understand – without any claim of universal generalizability – whether it was possible to find a patter in this particular collective repression actions, a number of empirical cases were analyzed.
The focus will be on the institutional communication of law enforcement authorities. We considered this as an interesting topic, worthy of a particular attention in a broader discussion on the relationship between information, media, and suspects’ rights.
The main questions are: Does institutional communication – both through traditional and social media – respect the suspects’ rights? Are the used tones mostly neutral or emphatic?
To try to answer these questions, our attention was mainly directed to two stages: the arrest and its immediate knowledge through the publication of videos on law enforcement authorities’ social channels; written and verbal communication by law enforcement authorities, i.e. press releases and press conferences.
As far as the source is concerned, we have analyzed the two main bodies – Polizia di Stato and Arma dei Carabinieri – which form the Public Security Authority, and which therefore assume the status of Public Security Officers5. The public security authority is regulated by Royal Decree No. 773 of 18 June 1931 (and subsequent amendments), which defines its tasks in Article 1: “it oversees the maintenance of public order, the safety of citizens, their security and the protection of property; it ensures compliance with the laws and general and special regulations of the State […]; it provides assistance in the event of public and private accidents. By means of its officers, and at the request of the parties, ensures the amicable settlement of private disputes”.
The task at hand is to check whether, in the name of the requirements of public security and the protection of public order, other constitutionally guaranteed rights are being restricted, infringed or denied.
It is admitted that the analytical objective may lead to biased selection, to cherry picking. It could be argued that even just one deviant case, even just one situation in which the individual rights are not respected, is worthy of attention and is, generally speaking, a violation of the principle; and since it is not possible to violate a rule in a particular situation without undermining the legal system’s more complex framework, it might be reasonable to assert that even this single, and perhaps unrepeatable and unrepeated event – and especially if perpetrated by those who are supposed to be the guarantors of rule of law – is a wider infringement of each individual’s rights.
2. The arrest
Sometimes, following an arrest, law enforcement authorities produce a video on it. The videos do not follow a criterion of arrest’s social relevance, as it is possible to find them either for seizures of small quantities of drugs or for the arrest of a fugitive who has been wanted for years.
To provide further support for the following assertions, which may at first seems apodictic, an analysis of the last ten videos of multiple arrests related to drug trafficking or mafia-type associations on Polizia’s and Carabinieri’s YouTube channels was carried out.
In the sample of videos analyzed – that it cannot be said to be representative – it was possible to detect some common elements; some phases which, with minimal differences, are constantly present. The videos, sometimes accompanied by soundtracks and atmospheres that recall the thriller film genre, often start with the image of a few – or dozens of – cars driving out of the police station with their sirens blaring. Then, the cameras cut to an aerial shot from the helicopter, with the terrestrial reverse angle following the aircraft’s confident movements. In cases where the raid is on individuals accused of drug trafficking, the field is left to K9 units, with the officer bringing the dog – used as a means of detection – out of the cages used for transport and leading it to the search site. The real action only begins after this “display of strength”, the demonstration of security, of personal and social safety that the armed forces intend to guarantee. The camera immediately moves inside the searched buildings, frequently showing every part of the house. It could be argued that, in the absence of the owner’s consent, the publication of these images may infringe the right to individual privacy. In this regard, the Supreme Court’s judgment No 27613/2019 expresses in these terms: “the right to privacy is configured as a specification of the right to private intimacy, understood as man’s need for full and exclusive enjoyment of the privacy of his person and of his actions, where the good that the subject intends to protect is not external to him but inherent in the person himself in his physical individuality or moral and social need”. It could be said that indiscriminate transmission by law enforcement or television of images belonging to personal privacy, such as the bedroom or bathroom, is an arbitrary intrusion. and, even if it probably does not represent a violation, it is a practice, so to speak more broadly cultural, that does not befit properly liberal institutions. Sometimes the video is accompanied by clips of intercepted conversations or wiretaps, undoubtedly aimed at demonstrating to the viewer the relevance and the criminal status of the arrested. Therefore, it should be noticed that such a practice implies – or at least configure the possibility – that an anticipation of conviction could be created in the audience. And it is not only the wiretaps that can generate this effect; the very titles of the videos, using pompous expressions such as “hard blow struck to the clan”, “closed the circle on mafia murder”, “carabinieri dismantle mafia association”, denote the same anticipatory mechanism, almost as if an arrest made were equivalent to a final sentence, not contemplating the possibility that a judge might overturn the investigative evidence gathered. However, it is noticeable – to the relief of the rule of law – that in the sample of videos analyzed, any reference to personal identity, either of the arrested or of agents, is omitted: faces have been obscured, as have car number plates, and often, voices are camouflaged and altered. The videos tend to end with the image of the stolen goods, weapons, money or drugs (or a combination of them) lying on a table.
A hypothesis could be made although the cases analyzed show compliance with the law, the impression that can be gained from a close look is that – given the arrestee’s and agents’ depersonalization and collectivization – the videos only fulfil a need to publicize and promote the police forces.
And it is the final image of the videos that sublimates this intention: the weapons and drugs on a table, sentencing that the violated order has been re-established, the crime – intended as a general source of disorder – dismantled, the forces of order – the ultimate guarantors, the main actors of the work – present, always ready to intervene.
As for the research questions raised, the answers seem clear: notwithstanding possible violations of the right to privacy, the video communication of arrests largely respects the arrestee’s rights.
We have already mentioned the communicative methods: the tones are often grandiloquent, the demonstrations of force imperious – and one could say excessive – and one can notice a subtext of infallible judgement, of anticipatory conviction. However, there is a difference in the entitlement of the videos: more pompous headings – such as the ones mentioned above – frame more the videos of Carabinieri; while Polizia tend to use more neutral titles, putting only the number of arrests alongside the reason for the arrest.
3. Press release and press conference
The next step after the arrest is sometimes the emission of a press release and the calling of a press conference. In the most important cases, i.e. cases involving many suspects and therefore attracting more social attention, the issuing of a press release and a press conference take place frequently.
Using the scheme previously adopted, it was decided to analyze the textual content of the last ten press releases – related to arrests for drug trafficking or mafia-type associations – of Polizia di Stato6 and Carabinieri7. The focus will be on two aspects: the use of the conditional verb tense in presenting the reasons for the arrest; the use of hyperbole in describing the offence for which the arrest was made.
To dwell on the use of the conditional tense in presenting the investigative theorem might appear an analytical quirk; but since this verbal tense is an expression of modality, i.e. indicating a hypothesis, it is reasonable to argue that it should be used to indicate a situation that only takes place if a certain condition is met. An example could be: if the accusation holds up during the trial, then the arrested persons would have committed the offences charged against them.
Conversely, by using a different verb tense, one wants to indicate situations not affected by uncertainties.
Therefore, we proceeded to make this kind of analysis, i.e. to categorize the various verb tenses used in press releases’ drafting. It is necessary to underline that not all of them are used to describe the operations and the facts of which those arrested are accused; but the introduction of the statement is usually brief, leaving much space for the actual operation, the narration of the events and the police’s thesis. There is no significant stylistic difference between the two police forces: Polizia used 368 verbs in the press releases analyzed, of which only 2 in the conditional mood (0.5%). Carabinieri used 376 verbs, of which 6 in the conditional mood (1.6%).
One can therefore reasonably affirm that also in the written communication analyzed that anticipatory phenomenon of conviction mentioned above occurs – as we shall see.
Then, a reconstruction and evaluation of the tone of the language used was carried out. A preliminary step is the recognition of the most frequently used terms in the press releases.
To do this, it was decided to use the method of analyzing the specific language. In order to do this, it is necessary to have frequency lexicons, i.e. a particular resource aimed at constructing and representing the common language of a given community. In these lists – made up of millions of linguistic expressions derived from the most varied sources (press, spoken language, literature, etc.) – each word is associated with a frequency, which serves to indicate the expected use of each word in the linguistic community to which the lexicon refers. By comparing the lexicon of the text under examination (in this case, the sample of press releases) with that of the general community’s frequency lexicon, a list of over-represented words can be drawn up, which ultimately correspond to the peculiar language of the text itself (see Figures 1 and 2).
In our case, this kind of analysis is not very meaningful since the topic was chosen in advance – drugs and mafia-type associations. However, it seems interesting to introduce this kind of technique, also to check whether the reason for the arrest is openly highlighted in the press release.
Moving on to an illustration of tone, we have chosen to use a few exemplary phrases. We could find representations that seems a little too hagiographic, like: “The impeccable direction of the Judicial Authorities of the Anti-mafia Prosecutors’ Office of Bari, however, supported by a continuous, very intense and profitable real time coordination of many Carabineer divisions, through which it has been possible to realize a massive, penetrating and qualified info-investigative maneuver, has allowed the containment of the shooting actions of the clans which were fighting against each other”. On other occasions communiqués take on fictional tones, such as: “At the crack of dawn today”, “The theatre for this maxi operation is the densely populated neighborhood…” or the description of the act of selling drugs as a “routine that has become almost a ritual”.
Sometimes the press releases give the “honor of arms” to the arrestees, describing an organization as “a well-oiled system designed to circumvent law enforcement controls” or acknowledging the suspects’ “skillful attempts to elude controls”. However, any effort to do so is, of course, not enough to avoid being “put in handcuffs”. At times, the language of the institution itself is completely supplanted by journalistic reconstruction: for example, expressions such as “A picture as disturbing as it is clear” or “The most alarming aspect had yet to emerge”.
However, there is a slight difference between Polizia’s and Carabinieri’s analyzed communiqués. From a stylistic point of view, the Carabinieri repeatedly use rhetorical flourishes, while some police communiqués appear more streamlined and, when it becomes necessary to use slang or sophisticated terms to facilitate a better understanding of the discourse, they are put in inverted commas, From a substantive point of view, there are no discrepancies: the personal details of the suspects are often given, the name or initial of the name, the State (region or province) of origin, the profession practiced (and if the arrested person is unemployed, this is underlined).
It was not possible to conduct an organic mapping of press conferences, as no official portal lists them according to any criteria. Some other platforms and archives report conferences in relation to more heavily covered cases, but it is not possible to deduce any extensible rule from them. We have therefore relied on common and shared representations among judicial operators.
In addition to the already described press conferences held by the prosecutor’s office, autonomous police’s conferences are also being carried out. On these occasions, violations of the right to personal identity of suspects or defendants are frequent: it is common practice to disclose the names, age, gender, nationality and profession of suspects (in the latter we could see continuity with press releases). In addition, mugshots or pictures of detainees being arrested and taken to prison are often projected, in contravention of current legislation. This practice is not usually followed by disciplinary measures.
An example of bad practice can be seen in a press conference organized by Padova’s provincial command of Carabinieri. The latter, with the approaching release from prison of eight individuals detained for robbery, felt it was his duty to warn the population to keep “in mind the faces of these thieves, arrested by the carabinieri precisely because they had committed house burglaries. Once released, they may resume their illegal activities. They all have a record and set their targets in the early afternoon hours and work in the evening hours”. The Colonel, with a moralizing attitude, then gives some advice to the community, for example: “It is not the case to tell everyone when you are going on a trip, nor to say where you are going: it is clear that an exotic or expensive holiday destination leads one to think that in that family there is a particularly high availability of money or goods; it is better to always keep a low profile so as not to let outsiders know your movements and your availability”.
In conclusion, it can be said that the institutional communication analyzed – that we do not claim to have the power to be generalized – only partly respects the rights of those arrested, clearly and openly violating the principle of the presumption of innocence.
Regarding the tone, the press release and conferences are also in continuity with the videos of the arrests; the forms used emphasize the action of repression, to the point of appearing to be a self-eulogy.
The aim of this last part was to understand some characteristics of police institutional communication. In particular, the intention was to understand whether individual rights were respected and whether neutral tones – appropriate for institutional relations – were used in the disclosure of information, or whether the text was embellished with rhetorical figures and emphatic tones.
The aim of these research questions was to determine the broader relationship between information and the disclosure of certain news considered to be of social relevance and the institutions responsible for safeguarding security and public order, always bearing in mind the need for a balance between these same security needs and individual’s personal freedom – postulated in the acquired rights.
It is worth mentioning that the European Parliament and the Council had already issued a directive on this subject, 343/2016. It is entitled “on the strengthening of certain aspects of the presumption of innocence and of the right to be present at the trial in criminal proceedings” and acts with harmonizing intent between European legal systems, through common minimum rules.
It is immediately specified that the Directive is to be applied at every stage of criminal proceedings, including arrest. For what is of interest for the purposes of this discussion, i.e. institutional communication, it is established that “The presumption of innocence would be violated if public statements made by public authorities, or judicial decisions other than those on guilt, referred to a suspect or an accused person as being guilty, for as long as that person has not been proved guilty according to law”. It is immediately made clear what is meant by public statements made by public authorities, namely “any statement which refers to a criminal offence and which emanates from an authority involved in the criminal proceedings concerning that criminal offence” including “judicial authorities, police and other law enforcement authorities, or from another public authority”. The possibility of “publicly disseminating information on the criminal proceedings where this is strictly necessary for reasons relating to the criminal investigation” remains open, but whose use “should be confined to situations in which this would be reasonable and proportionate, taking all interests into account”.
In any event, it is stipulated that the manner and context of disclosure should not give the impression of guilt of the person concerned before it has been legally proven. Thus, is established that public authorities are in breach of the Directive if they produce communications of any kind that present the suspect as guilty or give the impression of guilt.
At first glance, this might appear to be a duplication of the precept laid down in Article 27(2) of the Constitution, but the interpretation might be slightly different. In the directive there is an explicit reference to public communication of public authorities, to their official duties: and if for the communication of the judicial authority one could refer to the already mentioned CSM guidelines, for other public authorities no indication was found.
The principle affirmed seems clear: any public statement by a public authority is admissible only if it serves the needs of the trial or investigation, but it is not legitimate if it is guided by the intention of giving general information to the public. It can be argued that this is because the right to information is already ensured by the publicity, if it is allowed, of judicial documents.
To ensure that the requirements do not remain unimplemented, the European institutions indicate to the Member States the need to take the necessary measures to achieve the objective. To this purpose, Member States should inform “public authorities of the importance of having due regard to the presumption of innocence when providing or divulging information to the media. This should be without prejudice to national law protecting the freedom of press and other media”.
This directive has been the subject of fierce debate – and constant postponement – in the relevant parliamentary committees. A delegation law (legge delega) to the government to receive the directive was recently approved8 in one chamber of the Parliament.
This was undoubtedly felt to be a step forward. Some pundit, however, warn that the directive itself sets out a series of principles, which are destined to remain a solemn aspiration or mere hope if they are not incorporated into a legislative decree, which will have to establish both the normative precepts and the system of sanctions.
And if one takes the example of similar cases already regulated, it will show that the corresponding sanctions are notoriously ineffective and unenforced.
Given these normative precepts, it must be emphasized that reality is far different from them. Almost all the cases analyzed – be they videos, conferences or press releases – present the suspects with an anticipation of guilt. The information is conveyed without any investigative need, but with an intent that could be defined as eulogistic.
Trecani, retata, Vocabolario on line.
Normattiva, REGIO DECRETO 18 giugno 1931, n. 773 [Royal Decree No. 773 of 18 June 1931].
YoTube, Arma dei Carabinieri.
Arma dei Carabinieri, Castellamare di Stabia (NA): duro colpo inferto dai Carabinieri a un clan camorristico, 16 arresti, YouTube, 23 March 2021.
Arma dei Carabinieri, Bari: Carabinieri chiuso il cerchio su omicidio di mafia del 2018. Misure cautelari per 11 persone, YouTube, 30 March 2021.
Arma dei Carabinieri, Latina: Carabinieri smantellano organizzazione mafiosa, YouTube, 27 January 2021.
Carabinieri, COMUNICATI STAMPA, 6 April 2021.
Polese, Roberta, Ladri, un furto in casa al giorno, Corriere del Veneto, 5 January 2018.
Intrieri, Cataldo, L’Italia recepisce la direttiva sulla presunzione di innocenza, ma c’è ancora da lavorare, Linkiesta, 1 April 2021.
Assessing the Risk of Isolation of Suspects and Accused (ARISA) is a project to investigate the consequences to people’s personal lives when accused in committing a crime.
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