NEW YORK TIMES, The Opinion Pages FEB. 19, 2014
SÃO PAULO, Brazil — In Brazil, police officers kill an average of five people every day. In 2012, according to a security report from the Brazilian Forum on Public Security, 1,890 Brazilians were killed by the police, 351 here in São Paulo. That was around 20 percent of all homicides in the city. At the same time, 11 police officers were killed on duty here and around 100 were executed off-duty, allegedly by organized crime. Police officers are three times more likely to be murdered than the average Brazilian.
I once complained about being a writer in Brazil, but it seems our police officers are in considerably worse shape. In São Paulo, lower ranked military police officers earn an annual salary of $15,248, including benefits and danger pay allowances. They work in 12-hour shifts, night and day, for an average of 42 hours a week. But only in theory. Officers claim the rules are often ignored, with extended overtime, short notice of scheduling changes and irregular or no lunch breaks. Some take on additional jobs to supplement their wages, not only as private security guards (which is illegal), but also in a program called “Atividade Delegada,” through which the city hires policemen in their spare time, offering the equivalent of $64 for eight extra hours patrolling the streets.
There are two main kinds of police in Brazil. The civilian police concentrate on criminal investigations, while the military police have the duty of maintaining public order and working to prevent crimes.
The military police are not part of the armed forces, and yet they operate according to military principles of rank and discipline. They cannot strike or unionize, and are subject to a military-style penal code (meaning transgressions at work can be treated as mutiny or treason, and officers are tried in a special court). They are prohibited from “revealing facts or documents that can discredit the police or disrupt hierarchy or discipline.”
They also can’t openly disapprove of the acts of civilian authorities from the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government, and are forbidden to express their personal political opinions. Last year, eight officers from Ceará, in northeastern Brazil, were discharged after taking part in a political meeting. Three others were arrested upon returning from a public meeting to discuss police demilitarization.
As if that weren’t enough, the same Brazilian Forum on Public Security report found that 70 percent of Brazilians distrusted the police. In other words, our police have lost their legitimacy.
“I love my job, I really do,” one member of the military police recently told me. “But our work goes unrecognized. Our errors are scrutinized. We have fractions of a second to decide between accelerating or braking, shooting or retreating; either way we are blamed.”
Another officer complained that the news media gave more attention to cases of police brutality than to the killings of officers. He noted that police officers were sometimes the only agents of the state stationed in poor neighborhoods dominated by organized crime. “Everything is on us.”
But their main complaint is the impunity of criminals. Many believe Brazil’s judicial institutions are too lenient and inefficient. Officers are tired of arresting the same suspects over and over.
According to Adilson Paes, a retired police lieutenant colonel who conducted a study on police brutality, some officers turn vigilante as a result. This was also the conclusion of an investigation into policing in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo conducted by Human Rights Watch: Many deaths of civilians “resisting arrest” are in fact extrajudicial killings, the report found, and “some police officers are members of ‘death squads,”’ which are “responsible for hundreds of murders each year.”
This often leads to a cycle of retribution between the police and organized crime. Just a month ago, in Campinas, a city 60 miles from São Paulo, a policeman was killed in front of his wife during a robbery; within a few hours, 12 people were found executed — apparently by the police, as revenge. And sometimes corrupt police officers themselves are involved in organized crime.
“We are one of the most violent countries in the world, and the military police are part of that universe,” José Vicente da Silva Filho, a retired police colonel, told TV Folha. “So it would seem difficult to have a much better police force than we have now.”
In São Paulo, many attribute a recent drop in killings by the police to a new rule that forbids officers to transport wounded suspects to the hospital or offer them first aid. It turns out that police officers had been picking up people who had been wounded by the police officers themselves, and then executing them on the way to the hospital. Five months ago, a young man allegedly committed suicide in the back of a police car, after being arrested for robbery. If that’s true, he somehow managed to shoot himself in the head while his hands were cuffed behind his back.
Two years ago, the United Nations Human Rights Council recommended that Brazil abolish its military police; other international groups have criticized the force for beating and torturing detainees. But the discussion here has been polarized. Human rights organizations are often seen as apologists for criminals: “Some believe that investigating and prosecuting police abuses would weaken the hand of law enforcement, and thereby strengthen criminal gangs,” says Human Rights Watch.
But lately, more Brazilians have been taking notice, as police brutality is increasingly directed against journalists and political protesters (many from the middle class), instead of just the same old black and poor citizens who live in favelas.
As a regular attendee of the mass demonstrations that have swept the country since last June, I have witnessed acts of unnecessary violence against unarmed protesters. In that period, a student and a professional photojournalist were both blinded after being hit by flash bombs and rubber bullets. Three weeks ago, the police shot a man who was protesting against the World Cup. He allegedly threatened an officer with a box cutter.
Many officers at the protests work without identification tags and inhibit journalists from filming and taking pictures. It is wise to approach them with your hands in the air, speaking in a reassuring way. In a recent poll, 64 percent of police officers claimed to be unprepared to deal with mass demonstrations.21COMMENTS
Now, with the World Cup fast approaching and more demonstrations on the way, there’s a lot of talk about demilitarizing the police. This would grant more labor rights to our officers, releasing them from a military code of conduct and discipline that often involves humiliation and training infused with a war mentality. It would also mean conferring on the civilian justice system the authority to judge all crimes committed by police officers.
This would be a step back from our military dictatorship years and a step toward creating a legitimate police force where officers deal with the civilians not as their enemies but as fellow citizens — even if they have broken the law.
Vanessa Barbara, a novelist, edits the literary Web site A Hortaliça and is a columnist for the newspaper Folha de São Paulo.