Race, Policing and Video in Brazil

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Amarildo Souza, a bricklayer who lived in Rocinha, the biggest favela in Rio de Janeiro, disappeared after being taken to a police station in a drug raid in July, 2013. Amarildo’s body was never found, but later that same year several police officers were convicted of torturing and murdering him.

Amarildo’s murder led to protests in Brazil and abroad, and a high-profile social media campaign —“Where is Amarildo?” (“Onde está Amarildo?”)—that captured mounting public concern about police brutality in Latin America’s largest and richest country.

Additional officers may now be charged in that case, thanks to a street surveillance camera recently obtained by the Rio State Public Prosecutor’s Office. The video footage suggested that Rio State’s elite police squad, the Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE in its Portuguese acronym), was responsible for the removal of his body on the night of the disappearance.

Just this past June, the 14 officers who appeared in the footage were removed from office and are being investigated.

The scenario may sound familiar to readers in the U.S., where video—recorded by police or citizens—is transforming the relationship between communities and law enforcement.

But in Brazil, the growing use of such technology appears to have done little to halt what some have called an epidemic of police killings.

In 2014, the Brazilian police killed an average of 8 people per day. The actual total came to 3,022 deaths, according to the latest Brazilian Forum for Public Security Annual Report.

Police killings were the second cause of the almost 60,000 violent deaths registered last year in a nation where, as some commentators have said, the degree of violence “defies belief.”

And the killings are increasing despite a parallel trend to put dashboard cameras in police vehicles. In 2009, Rio State passed legislation making it mandatory for police vehicles to have cameras that record both external and internal views. Although not strictly implemented—not all cars have them, and sometimes they don’t work—the simple measure was enough to catch on tape two police officers coldly planning and shooting three teenagers in June 2014. The officers were arrested and are awaiting trial.

In another example, in early 2015, officers on a regular patrol in another area of Rio shot two unarmed teenagers who ran when they saw the police cars; one died, the other was severely injured. The cameras placed in the police car recorded the scene, and were used as proof to counter the officers’ version of self-defense. They are in prison awaiting trial.

Rio de Janeiro/Photo by dany13 via Flickr

The proliferation of video clips of police activities captured by private cell phones or security cameras—has also helped bring some officers to justice.

Video recorded by cellphone cameras helped to expose a cover-up of killings by the police, as shown in this footage by a resident in the Providencia community in Rio.  Such cover-ups are so common that, in 2014, after a few scandals, the State Security Secretary of São Paulo—Brazil’s most populous state and the country’s economic powerhouse—forbade police from providing first aid at the scene of shootings.

Such first aid was often used as an opportunity for covering up or even committing an unjustified killing (i.e. not in self-defense).

In July, two suspected robbers were chased by São Paulo police to the rooftop of a house. Even though the men surrendered, one of them was thrown by an officer to the street, and the other was shot in cold blood. The entire incident was captured on video recorded by a cellphone and a nearby security camera.

However, nothing makes clearer the minimal impact of video on police behavior than the fact that killings by police officers registered in 2014 had jumped 37 percent from the previous year.

While there have been protests, the phenomenon hasn’t fueled a national movement similar to what we’ve seen in the U.S.  In fact, a significant segment of Brazilian society appears to support aggressive police behavior. A national survey included in the 2015 Brazilian Forum report indicates that 50 percent of Brazilians agree with the popular saying “a good criminal is a dead criminal” (“bandido bom é bandido morto”).

Why There’s No Ferguson Effect in Brazil

 Brazilian opponents of violent police behavior have borrowed some of their rhetoric from the protest movement that emerged following the 2014 killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO by a police officer, and subsequent tragic incidents in New York, Baltimore and Chicago. But the idea of a “Ferguson effect” in which police sensitivity to protests has (supposedly) led to a reduction in crime-fighting could not sound more foreign to a Brazilian audience.

In fact, public sympathy towards aggressive policing may also have fed a new phenomenon: the use of social media by police officers to reinforce the stereotype of a twisted type of “hero,” willing to do whatever is necessary to fight crime, with polemic photos and messages promoting torture and violence, as shown in an article published by Folha de S. Paulo.

There is one other sobering difference.  In the U.S., the names of each fallen victim now reverberate throughout the public media—on Twitter, Facebook and in the placards carried by protesters.  But in Brazil, a mixed-race country with two-thirds of the U.S. population, the volume of cases is so high that it is almost impossible for the public to keep track. Brazil’s homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants as of 2014 was six times higher than the U.S. rate, and the total number of police killings was about 7.5 times higher.


The Challenge of Police Reform in Brazil

 Even so, there are some encouraging signals of change from within the ranks of police themselves. Some police managers welcome the use of cameras as part of an overhaul of law enforcement practices.

“Cameras can help correct police behavior,”  says Colonel Robson Rodrigues, Chief of Staff of Administration of the State Military Police of Rio de Janeiro, which ranked first in police lethality rates per 100,000 inhabitants in 2014.

(Police killings represented almost 16 percent of the total homicides in Rio State over the past five years, as shown in a report by Amnesty International, which helped to launch the campaign “Say No to Execution”, against police brutality and impunity in Rio.)

According to Rodrigues, cameras in police vehicles provide “additional accountability” and are a positive addition “as long as the information captured is analyzed in a responsible manner, and also cost saving.”

The colonel was the first Coordinating Commander of the Police Pacification Units (UPPs), a community policing initiative that is considered one of the main causes of Rio’s decline in crime rates since 2010. But the city’s track record of police brutality is so strong that, in 2012, a World Bank report suggested that some favela residents saw the UPP program as a “pacification” of the police.

The program has suffered a setback over the past two years, largely due to accusations of UPP police brutality, as this New York Times video shows.

One of Colonel Rodrigues’ biggest challenges, he concedes, is overcoming resistance to change among officers themselves.

“The proximity policing we have been trying to implement in Rio is based on the principles of dialogue, legitimacy and transparency. But it is really hard to solidify this approach, because you need to change policing culture,” he told The Crime Report.

 “Police officers need to understand the benefits of this type of interaction, because legitimacy is the most important asset that the police can have. We need to keep investing in training and in human capital.”

And he seems to be trying. Despite the shocking 584 cases registered in 2014, which continue to justify the description of the state’s law enforcement agency as the most violent police force in the country, this is still almost half of the 983 registered in Rio de Janeiro ten years ago.

Photo by Igrape Institute

In 2013, the Military Police of Rio partnered with Rio-based “think-and-do” thank Igarapé Institute and Google Ideas to launch the Smart Policing Initiative to improve community and police relations. The initiative consists in turning smart phones into body-worn cameras, through an open source Android app—CopCast—that harnesses the visual, audio and GPS functions of smart phones.

The app is intended to improve citizen oversight over the police and to reduce corruption and the excessive use of force, as well as protect officers from false accusations and provide  an additional layer of protection for those on patrol. Only a dozen officers from UPP forces in Rio have used it so far, but the number is expected to expand to 50 in 2016. This is still small: Rio’s police force has approximately 50,000 officers, although not all are assigned to street patrol.  Nevertheless, it’s a promising effort.

The app is also being piloted in the South of Brazil and in two cities in South Africa.

According to Robert Muggah, the Igarapé Institute’s co-founder and research director, there is a lot of learning exchange between U.S. and Latin America these days, with both sides recognizing that, despite the difference in magnitude of the problem, trends are very similar. As part of the design of Smart Policing, Igarapé and Rio Military police teams went to New York, for example, to see how NYPD body cameras work and how that data is managed.

Likewise, various U.S. police agencies, such as the New Orleans Police Department, have recently reached out to Igarapé to learn how the Smart Policing system is working so far.

One important difference in the use of body-worn cameras, however, which reflects the depth of the problem in Brazil and its neighbors, is that in the U.S. the camera default is typically locked into the “off” position, with an officer deciding when to turn it on. In Latin American police agencies that use such cameras, Muggah points out, the default is “on.” since many commanders worry that officers will not use the camera when they are in potentially compromising situations.

“The big question still is: who has access to that information and under what conditions?” says Muggah.

The same question was recently posed in a New York Times op-ed, after the release of video on the police shooting of Laquan McDonald in Chicago. The writer, Sarah Lustbader of Bronx Defenders in New York, argued that that body-camera footage should be managed by an impartial third-party in the U.S., either private or government-run.

That would be hard to achieve in Brazil, says Muggah, who points out that, while in the U.S. such decisions can be determined at the state level, there’s no clarity in Brazil over who should have the legal oversight over these new technologies.

“In Seattle, for example, the (Washington State) Police Department has a YouTube channel where they release body-worn camera footage, while the NYPD doesn’t give out this type of data. In Rio, laws on who owns and how one uses evidence generated through video are still evolving,” he told The Crime Report.

The complex national infrastructure of Brazilian law enforcement has added to the challenge. The Federal Police, the most prestigious force, is the main agency at the national level, and performs tasks similar to those of the FBI. At the state level, there are two main forces: the Military Police (which is different from the Army), responsible for patrolling; and the Civil Police, in charge of investigations. The lack of coordination between the two is a historical problem in the country. Draft laws to unify the police system are being discussed in Congress.

Meanwhile, at the local level, some cities have municipal guards, whose main role is to protect public spaces. They were once forbidden to carry arms, but new and controversial legislation, passed in 2014 and criticized by several specialists and military and civil police officers themselves, has now allowed armed municipal guards as well.

So far, none of the over 10,000 hours of footage captured by the Smart Policing Initiative in Rio have involved suspicious behavior or been used in criminal cases, but Muggah recognizes that this could be an important tool to provide evidence in cases of police abuse.

Police victimization is also as much of a concern in Brazil as it is in the U.S.

Some 51 U.S. law enforcement agents were killed as a result of felonious acts while on duty in 2014, according to FBI figures, a number almost twice as high as the 27 deaths of this kind registered in 2013.

In Brazil, by contrast, 398 officers were killed in 2014, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Security, although 70 percent of those were off duty, when some of them may be at higher risk of victimization, especially when criminals know their identity. This number represents a slight decrease from the 408 deaths registered in 2013; but it is also likely underestimated, since some Brazilian states also did not provide information about police victimization.

Institutional Racism

 Brazil, like the U.S., also faces serious problems in terms of community relations with law enforcement. Renato Silva, vice-president of the Brazilian Forum for Public Security, says that Brazilian police have “a special difficulty in dealing with a specific part of the population which is black, poor and young”—in ways that appear to parallel reports of U.S. police attitudes.

A Datafolha Polling Institute survey published in November 2015, for example, shows that 60 percent of São Paulo citizens have more fear than trust of the military police—a 10 percent point increase since 2013.

One important factor in the rising distrust is institutional racism.

Approximately 50 percent of the Brazilian population define themselves as black (7.6 percent) or mixed race (43.1 percent), according to the latest national Census.  Nevertheless, some in Brazil argue that profiling is based on socio-economic status rather than skin color.

“In the U.S., there is at least a recognition of a racially divided society that requires public policies to mitigate segregation,” argues Silva. “In Brazil, there is a more perverse order, in which race is always hidden behind poverty.”

There is no shortage of data or daily news stories to confirm his argument. Over 77 percent of the more than 30,000 victims of murder between the ages of 15 and 29 in Brazil were Afro-descendant, according to the latest Map of Violence, another key source of Brazilian homicide data.

The report Youth Vulnerability to Violence and Racial Inequality, released in 2015 by the Brazilian Forum for Public Security, in partnership with Ministry of Youth and UNESCO, also showed that an Afro-descendant youth in Brazil is today 2.5 times more likely to be killed than a white youth.

In a 2013 breakthrough economic analysis Lost Lives and Racism, Daniel Cerqueira and Rodrigo Moura from the Brazil Institute for Applied Economic Research (IPEA) found that socio-economic differences could only explain 20 percent of the gap in the number of homicides of white and black Brazilians.

“That doesn’t mean that the other 80 percent is necessarily represented by racism, but it shows that the story goes way deeper than we tend to believe,” said Cerqueira.“Our interpretation is that institutional racism in Brazil leads to lost lives not only in the objective sense of deaths, but also in terms of its effects on self-esteem, access to labor markets, and so on.”

According to Cerqueira, police behavior is one of the best representations of institutional racism in Brazil.

“There is one unfortunate popular saying that any police officer in the country knows: ‘a black person standing is a suspect; a black person running is a criminal’ (“negro parado é suspeito, negro correndo é bandido”),” said Cerqueira.

Recently, Rio police started a ‘stop and frisk’ practice on buses coming from the favelas to the southern beaches, preventing unarmed teenagers—most of them black—from going to areas where a series of thefts had taken place. The practice led to a series of protests from civil society organizations and some legislators, and was suspended.

What Already Looks Bad is Probably Worse

 Mechanisms to ensure police accountability are directly linked to another hot topic in both countries: how to measure police lethality.

In Brazil, the already shocking number of known police killings is likely an under-representation of reality. The Brazilian Forum was only able to start compiling this data in a more systematic and reliable manner in 2011, with the approval of the Access to Information Law, which requires that governments disclose public information upon request.

However, some states did not respond to the Forum’s request, which suggests that the total number of police killings in Brazil in 2014 was higher than the over 3,000 reported.

In addition to that, says Samira Bueno, executive-director of the Brazilian Forum for Public Security and one of the top researchers in the country looking at police brutality and criminal justice data, Brazilian states still use different methodologies to account for these deaths, and some don’t even have this data registered.

In fact, in recent weeks the Brazilian Forum for Public Security got into a heated public debate with the State Government of São Paulo about its recently changed methodology to record police killings carried out in self-defense by off-duty officers. It turned out that, for the past nine years, the state had not registered those cases either as “justifiable killings” by officers in line of duty, or as regular homicides, leading to 973 unaccounted homicides over that period.

“This is a very complex phenomenon to measure, but the minimum diagnostic we do have shows how serious the situation is,” says Bueno.


Source: Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

 A draft bill to change the way police register “justifiable killings,” defined in Brazil as “resisting arrest” (autos de resistência), and to make the analysis of deaths caused by the police in line of duty more rigorous, has been  under discussion in the Brazilian Congress since 2012. But it faces a lot of resistance.

“Every time you try to exert any type of control over police work, there is a reaction from police agencies saying that they cannot work properly under those circumstances. So the challenge is to sell this in a way that is also positive for the police agencies, as seen by some progressive officers in Brazil who unfortunately still don’t represent the majority,” said the Brazilian Forum’s Bueno.

Changing Police Culture

 Despite the different magnitude of the problem in both countries, as well as the different levels of acceptance of violence, the U.S. and Brazil are at a similar crucial moment of redefining police practices.

Experts in both countries argue that, rather than worrying about the next viral video, police should be looking into how to change their values and their policing strategies.  The good news in Brazil is that, as in the U.S., civic activism is focusing more attention on the need for police to be transparent and accountable.

So far, however, the responses have been more encouraging in the U.S. than Brazil.

There has been nothing in Brazil to match President Barack Obama’s Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  Responses from high-level Brazilian authorities are usually restricted to condolences, but only in the most shocking and undeniable cases. Occasionally there are apologies to the families of victims, pledges to investigate further or replacement of commanders.

The difference in response goes even deeper.

“In Brazil you actually still have public authorities legitimizing the abuse of force,” said Samira Bueno, citing a recent statement by  the governor of Bahia, the largest state in the northeast of Brazil, who used a soccer metaphor to describe the work that police officers had carried out when 12 men were killed in Salvador in an anti-robbery operation.

“It’s [a cop] like a striker in front of the goal trying to decide, in seconds, how is it going to put the ball into the goal to make the score,” the governor said, even before investigations even took place.

In the era of social media, these different institutional and political responses to similar trends don’t go unnoticed by Brazil’s pundits and civil society representatives.

Some Brazilian analysts and activists have used the U.S. movement sparked by Ferguson to call attention to the issue.  In December 2014, 39 organizations linked to the black movement in Brazil took to the streets of São Paulo to protest police brutality and the “black youth genocide.”

Ferguson is Here,” as the march was called, ended with the delivery of a manifesto to the State Public Prosecutor.

Along with video, the internet and social media, one could also argue, have helped to strengthen activism and spread the news about cases that might once have gone unnoticed.  Voices from the margins are now a little closer to the mainstream.

But as a glance through almost any day’s newspaper shows, that has been far from sufficient to make Brazilian police less brutal and more accountable.

flaviacarbonariFlávia Carbonari is a Brazilian citizen security specialist and freelance journalist. She is a consultant for international organizations and collaborates with Brazilian NGOs working on violence reduction. She holds a Masters in Latin America Studies from Georgetown University.  She welcomes comments from readers.

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