The Brazilian state of São Paulo saw more police killings in 20 years than there were in 50 US states. In an interview with a Brazilian security expert, investigative news outlet Ponte analyzes the implications of these numbers.  

São Paulo’s military police killed 11,358 people over the last 20 years, according to data from the São Paulo Military Police Intelligence Center obtained by Ponte. That number is greater than all the killings committed by US police during the same period. Another 1,248 military police officers were killed in São Paulo state during that time.  

All of the deaths, both civilian and military police, include crimes committed by on-duty and off-duty police officers, and include cases in which the military police were the victims. The data is taken from July 1995 — when the state government began keeping track of police killings — and August 2015. 

This article was originally published by Ponte. It was translated, edited for clarity, and republished by InSight Crime with permission. See the original here

Even though São Paulo’s population is 7.5 times smaller than the United States — where about 319 million people are served by approximately 17,000 members of law enforcement agencies — São Paulo state (population 43 million) police are 53 times more violent than those in the entire US.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that US police kill an average of 369 people each year. In São Paulo state, data from military police intelligence shows that on average, 563 are killed annually by military police. 

“There are many serious and extremely competent people in the military police…. But military police culture prevents people from thinking independently.”

While São Paulo’s military police killed 11,358 people between 1995 and 2015, in the US, police killed 11,090 people over a 30-year period (1983 to 2012). 

According to Rafael Alcadipani, a professor at the São Paulo School of Business Administration and a Visiting Scholar at Boston College, “many people are deliberately executed” by the military police of São Paulo.

Read Ponte’s interview with Alcadipani below:

Ponte: Data from the São Paulo Military Police Intelligence Center shows that between July 1995 and August of this year, military police killed 11,358 people in São Paulo state. What’s behind this? The death toll includes deaths by military police on and off-duty.

Rafael Alcadipani: There are numerous factors to consider and we need to distinguish those deaths that happened on-duty and those that happened off-duty. Killings committed by off-duty police may be related to “bico” [secondary police employment]. Police salaries are very low and almost everyone works while off-duty, often in private security. Then they get involved in incidents, and as they’re doing their “bico” work, they are often outnumbered. There are cases of police officers who are involved in crime and commit murders related to crimes. There are also police who may interfere in police operations, without calling support and all that.

For on-duty cops, there are two types of killings: legitimate resistance and illegitimate. There are cases in which in order to protect himself or others, the officer has to “neutralize” the criminal. There are also cases where the police kill out of pure wickedness or do not believe that the justice system will help solve anything…. But without doubt, there are many people who are deliberately executed by the military police.

Ponte: Between July 1995 and August this year, 1,248 military police were killed and were either not working or on vacation. How can this be analyzed within the context of public security?

Rafael Alcadipani: Many police officers are working in their second job and may not have any support. They engage in events that generate confrontations and they end up getting killed. There are also cases of police officers who are killed because of their involvement in crime. The situation with Brazil’s police is quite fragile. They are very close to crime, and they are also greatly weakened due to their work conditions. 

Ponte: Brazil is debating possibly implementing a series of reforms known as the “full cycle” for the military police [Currently, under Brazilian law, the state military police are charged with maintaining order and conducting patrols, while the civil police investigate crimes. The “full cycle” reforms would give the military police power to also investigate crimes]. How can military police violence be affected, if the military also begin to carry out investigative police duties? 

Rafael Alcadipani: The “full cycle” is a good idea that could turn into a huge disaster. A police force with almost 100,000 may not be able to implement these reforms, due to the simple fact that no one can control what they do. Today, state governments have a tough time in reigning in the military police.

“In many ways, the military police just want people to say they are the best, they shouldn’t be questioned.”

Look at what happened recently in the Federal District. The police acted very aggressively against protesting teachers and the district secretary of security was not informed about it. He asked to change the head of the military police and he ended up resigning. We cannot give “full cycle” reforms to a police force that is not controlled by anyone effectively. The military police commit a lot of killings because everyone turns a blind eye to it. 

For the police top command, everything is fine. Folha recently did a survey showing that 60 percent of respondents don’t trust the military police. Instead of the military police wanting to understand this, the general commander wrote a response criticizing Folha and their research. In many ways, the military police just want people to say that they are the best, they shouldn’t be questioned.

The military police need to understand they belong to society, not to the [police] command. There are many serious and extremely competent people in the military police…. There are many people who want to get closer, who want to help improve the police. But military police culture prevents people from thinking independently. It is urgent, fully urgent, for the military policy to stop distancing themselves from society and to begin to embrace society, to respect it and listen to it. 

In truth, everyone is afraid of the military police and a police force that people do not trust, and everyone is afraid of not having the “full cycle” reforms.  Many people argue in favor of the “full cycle” reforms based on an ideal world, but this is the real world, where the poor and the marginalized are being killed. If you go to a lot of cool parties, there’ll be drugs and sex. But will the military police be there? 

We live in an unjust society in which there is a violent military police pitted against the poor. This police force cannot undergo “full cycle” reforms due to the risk that they might make day-to-day life much worse for a lot of people. And why would things get worse? Because knowing that an officer will have to present an incident [before an investigative body outside the military police], that makes them more careful about what they present. If they are presenting before someone within the military police, they can present whatever version they want by manipulating the facts.

“Changes are needed and one of them is to reduce the power of the military police in public security, not increase.”

Ponte: Many military police killings are justified by commanders as the result of a “war” against criminals. Can this war logic be applied to an analysis of military police killings in São Paulo?  

Rafael Alcadipani: Brazil police kill a lot, and police die a lot, that’s a fact. It’s the symptom of a public security model that is not working right now. It is not good for society and not good for most officers.

So changes are needed and one of them is to reduce the power of the military police in public security, not increase. Municipal guards and civilian police need more investment and more training. In the ideal world, I believe we should have a single police force, but divided by territories. For example, a police force in Jundiai, one in Campinas [different neighborhoods within São Paulo] and so on, with a single command for all police internal affairs. Today, the military police dominates the scene and is doing a bad job at meeting the needs of citizens, especially those who are most in need of their help.

In most cases, the police must act as a mediator in conflicts. There are only a few situations where the police need to be involved in confrontations. It is urgent to change the paradigm of how the police operate in Brazil.

Ponte: What can the state of São Paulo do to try and reduce military police killings and also prevent officers from being killed?

Rafael Alcadipani: Any police officer engaged in a confrontation that results in a death should be pulled off the streets for six months. The officer should go to do a program every day. [Former São Paulo governor Mario] Cobas did that and that’s when police became less aggressive. It is urgent to improve wages and working conditions for police officers. Police die because they earn little and need secondary employment. São Paulo pays its police very badly. 

This article was originally published by Ponte. It was translated, edited for clarity, and republished by InSight Crime with permission. See the original here