In a report published in 2016, Human Rights Watch reported that police in the state of Rio de Janeiro had killed more than 8,000 people in the last decade. This means that on average per year, police homicides in Rio constituted roughly one-quarter of the total number of homicides in the whole country. 2017 has been particularly bloody, the number of police killings during the first half of the year totalling 581, an increase of more than 45% compared to the same period in 2016, according to Reuters. This dramatic increase corresponds with rising levels of violence in Rio’s favelas, which led to the deployment of army troops to restore order in July and September. The motto of Brazil’s police force is ‘to serve and protect’ their citizens. At present, Rio’s police are miserably failing in this duty by directly increasing the insecurity of their citizens.
Brazil has a history of excessive use of force by police which has constituted a black mark on its human rights record. Police brutality is an issue most common to its largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Currently it is the latter which has seen a spike in police-perpetrated homicides. The current increase is by no means the highest Rio has seen in recent times, the peak during this century being reached in 2007. Thereafter, there was a significant downtrend which only began to pick up again in 2015. Cases of police homicides are routinely categorised as ‘autos de resistência’ or ‘killed while resisting arrest’, where use of lethal force is legal. Given the prevalence of armed gangs in Rio’s most dangerous favelas, it seems probable that such cases would be common.
However, in many cases, autopsies and witness accounts suggest that the deceased had not resisted attack and were actually executed. The wide disparity between the relatively low rate of non-fatal injuries of civilians in confrontations with the police, compared to the dramatically higher police homicide rate supports this conclusion. In other words, if armed confrontations between the police and civilians are as common as the figures suggest, it seems suspicious that there are so few injured but so many killed. These extrajudicial killings are often subjected to police cover-ups through interference with the crime scene.
Many reasons have been given as to why Rio de Janeiro has such a severe problem with police brutality. A study by Ignacio Cano, a lecturer at Rio State University published this year suggests that there is a correlation between countries with high homicide rates and a high number of homicides committed by police. Intuitively, this could be explained by the fact that police are more likely to face violent situations which necessitate self-defence. Yet we have seen that this is not the case with many police homicides in Rio indicating that there are other historical, institutional and cultural factors.
A historical account sees Rio’s current levels of police violence as part of the legacy of the bloody military dictatorship which ruled Brazil from 1964-1985. During this period, police were heavily involved in repressive tactics including torture, murder and forced disappearances of political opponents of the junta. More broadly, police violence has existed throughout Brazil’s history, in which a militarised police force has been regarded as essential to maintaining social order. Despite the transition to democracy which began in 1985, institutional reform of the police has been neglected. The constitution of 1988 maintained the dual structure of the police with civilian and military wings, the latter of which commit the majority of killings. The civil police’s jurisdiction covers criminal investigations, detective work and forensics and comes under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Justice. Whereas the military police are charged with maintaining day to day order in the streets of Brazil and are officially an auxiliary force of the army subordinate to the Ministry of Defence.
The appropriate conduct of the military police, in part because of its dual identity, is ambiguous. Many of its official standards are inherited from the army which lacks comprehensive guidance on how to conduct relations with the public. Police officers speak of a pervasive ‘military culture’ within the force, in which the favelas are perceived as ‘enemy’ occupied territory. This idea is illustrated by an interview conducted in 2016 by Human Rights Watch with a retired former commander general of Rio’s military police who claimed that officers “believe that the good police officer is the one who eliminates the enemy”.
What is even more shocking however is evidence that this view reflects one held by much of Brazilian society. A national survey conducted by the Brazilian Forum on Public Security in 2016 found that 57% of the population agreed, to some degree, with the sentence that ‘a good criminal is a dead criminal’.
Culture of impunity
Finally, and arguably the most important institutional weakness of Rio’s police is a lack of accountability. Resultantly, the police are not deterred from excessive use of force. Internal investigations carried out by the civil police force are hampered by a lack of autonomy, while external investigations carried out by Rio’s attorney general are uncommon. Indeed, the Attorney General’s Office reported to Human Rights Watch that it had filed charges in only four of the police killings recorded between 2010 to 2015. Yet, the example of São Gonçalo, the second largest city after Rio de Janeiro in Rio state, demonstrates that this does not have to be the case. Between 2008 and 2011 there was a concerted effort to hold the military police accountable in which prosecutors filed charges against approximately 15% of troops. Most likely this was a key contributing factor to the dramatic fall of police killings in the city, a decrease of 70% (Human Rights Watch). However, since the murder of a prominent judge in 2011 in São Gonçalo by police officers under investigation, this period of increased accountability has ceased and police killings have again risen.
As well as forcing the military police to be answerable to the public, more drastic institutional reforms have been suggested to deal with the problem of police killings. In a 2012 report, the UN Council on Human Rights recommended that Brazil abolish the military police and replace it with a civilian police force. In Rio de Janeiro a demilitarised community policing approach has been experimented with through the establishment of Police Pacifying Units or UPPs in 2008, specifically aimed at increasing the security of residents of Rio’s favelas. Initial progress was made with UPPs gaining the trust of many residents but was undermined after reports of abuse by some units. Nonetheless, expanding this programme while ensuring UPPs are held accountable does seem to be a promising step in the right direction. According to The Economist, in a poll carried out in August in 37 favelas, 60% of inhabitants said that they would rather UPPs be either maintained as they are or improved rather than disbanded.
Reform of Rio’s police requires funds, public pressure and persistence. In cash-strapped Rio where many residents still appear to support punitive policing methods and reform has long been neglected, this is a challenge. But it is one worth tackling for the sake of the security of Rio’s citizens.