After the fall in killings by police following the implementation of the Police Pacification Unit (UPP) in Rio de Janeiro, violent confrontations involving police are on the rise once again in Brazil’s southeast state. 

While there have been protests for months over police violence against African Americans in the United States, Brazilians reacted to the latest figures published by the Brazilian Forum on Public Security on police violence in their country with total indifference. Brazilian police killed 2,212 people during violent confrontations in 2013, for an average of 6 people per day.

According to statistics from the Institute of Public Security of Rio de Janeiro obtained by Agencia Publica, homicides deriving from police intervention in the state of Rio increased 30 percent from 2013 to 2014. Through October 2014, 481 people were killed, one hundred more than during the same period in 2013, when 416 people were killed in the whole year. The number of homicides committed by police in Rio – a state of 16 million residents – was nearly the same as the number committed by police in the entire United States, which has a population of approximately 300 million.

This article originally appeared in Agencia Publica and was translated, edited, and reprinted with permission. See Portuguese original here.

The numbers from 2014 show that, despite the drop in police-related homicides since the adoption of the UPPs in 2008, these crimes are once again on the rise. Nevertheless, they remain far from the record set in 2007, with 1,330 deaths at the hands of police.

The 2014 Rio study “Public Security, Violence and Police: What Occurred in Rio de Janeiro” by Silvia Ramos, coordinator of the Center for Citizen Security Studies at the University of Candida Mendes, demonstrated that general homicide trends are linked to police violence. If police are more violent, Brazilian society is in turn more violent. With the arrival of the UPPs, “acts of resistance decreased 70 percent in 2013 compared to when they were at their apex in 2007, and the homicide rate dropped to 28 per 100,000, from 40 or 50 per 100,000 in 2000.”

To the researchers, this statistic signifies that “the UPPs are in many respects a ‘police pacification’ program,” and that “without UPPs, there was a prevailing permission [among police] in the favelas to kill.” Without a fundamental change in the police and Rio’s security policy, we won’t be able to control crime and violence in the state of Rio,” the authors wrote.

Various studies exist on the acts of resistance in the state of Rio dating back to at least 1997, when “Lethal Police Action in Rio de Janeiro ” was published by Ignacio Cano, sociologist at the Laboratory for Analysis on Violence at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (Uerj). Through his study on police violence in the city of Rio de Janeiro during the 2000s, sociologist Michel Misse, found that the state prosecutor’s office (MP) had dismissed 99.2 percent of violent confrontations cases involving police. This means that according to the MP, in nearly all the cases, the police acted in legitimate defense and consequently did not receive any punishment. Several other studies have since been published that also analyzed police violence Rio de Janeiro .

All of the investigations arrive at the same conclusion, summarized by the researcher Orlando Zaccone in one phrase: “The police kill, but they do not kill alone.” The police kill as much as they do because, in the majority of cases, they know there will be no judicial repercussions for their actions. On a daily basis, the justice system dismisses the acts of violence as if they were a form of self-defense.

The police kill as much as they do because, in the majority of cases, they know there will be no judicial repercussions for their actions.

In theory, the prosecutor’s office is the government agency that can control and punish abuses by both civilian and military police forces. However, according to all of the studies, the justice system typically rules in favor of the police version of events. The courts accept the police account even when their version contained numerous contradictions and there was evidence pointing to the excessive use of force or even an extrajudicial killing.

Misse defined police accounts as “a pattern-narrative observable in the immense majority of analyzed cases: the police say they were on routine patrol or conducting an operation in an area dominated by armed groups, they were shot at, and then fought back against the ‘unjust aggression.’ After the shooting stops, the police would find ‘elements’ shot into the ground, generally with weapons and drugs close by. The police assist the victims by driving them to the hospital. In almost all of the cases of violent confrontations with police, is it reported that the victims died on their way to the hospital.”

In his analysis of 100 cases of police violence in São Gonçalo, Mello Cunha noted that “the practice of always assisting the “injured” in the confrontations – in 100 percent of the cases investigated – are even more suspicion when compared to other types of emergencies. In fact, the research indicated that when the cases involve homicides or car accidents, firefighters or the medical emergency service (Samu) is tasked with assisting the injured and recovering the cadaver. This practice is reversed, however, when it comes to instances of violent confrontations with police,” Cunha wrote.

In many cases, the autopsy examination revealed that it is very unlikely the victim showed signs of life to justify their removal to a hospital. Frequently, heart, lung, or brain lacerations indicated it was very unlikely the victim was alive when they received medical attention. In 32 percent of the cases in São Gonçalo, the victims had more than three injuries, including some that had more than 10 bullet wounds. The fact that police move the bodies hinders the examination of the alleged crime scene that, in practice, is never a part of the police investigation. The absence of on-site experts impedes the collection of the bullets, which would enable ballistic comparison tests. These tests are also practically non-existent in instances of violent confrontations with police. 

Instead of conducting the examinations (on-site and ballistic), the civilian police prioritize finding the victim’s criminal record sheet. “The construction of the legitimate defense argument is made not in how the police acted, that is of minor importance. What matters more is the identification of the dead. If the victim is black, a favela-dweller, if they have a criminal record, or a family member says they were involved in a crime, that is sufficient to legitimize their death,” Zaccone wrote.

In fact, when family members are called, they are asked about “the moral character of the victim.” If the family responds that the victims was employed or was a student, the questions turn to if they were addicted to some type of drug — another possible “justification” for their death.

Michel Misse noted that “in all the investigations of violent confrontations with police, there is no solicitation of the police’s criminal record sheet.”

“It is more important to find out the victim’s past than to have access to the history of the police officer who participated in the act, or how many homicides they committed while on duty,” he stated.

The São Gonçalo study showed that in 82 percent of the deaths, there was no information on the police investigation on the victim’s past, even though this information can be obtained through a simple query into electronic databases. When the criminal record was present in the police investigations, seven percent of the dead had some type of prior conviction or run-in with the law. An additional seven percent had no criminal history. Three percent of the dead – although there was no official information about them – were identified by the military police involved in the confrontation as “drug traffickers”, “drug bosses” or even “favela owners.”

Paulo Roberto Mello Cunha has pointed out various contradictions in the police versions of the alleged confrontations with armed groups: “The low number of high-caliber weapons seized and the high amount of 38-caliber revolvers confiscated from suspects demonstrates two things. That the police are not constantly combating heavily-armed groups; or there are not as many assault rifles in the hands of criminals as they want us to believe. There is no other option. The police also allege that the armed groups, shooting first, are only able to hit their adversaries in 2 percent of cases. Either these criminals have no idea how to use a firearm, or there are an incredibly high number of visually impaired criminals. In sum, calling what happens during the inquiries into cases of violent confrontations involving police an investigation would be a true mockery.”

Either these criminals have no idea how to use a firearm, or there are an incredibly high number of visually impaired criminals.

The conclusions of these crime experts are a stain for all security forces, and, consequently, for society as a whole as well. “It is insufficient to attribute the responsibility for these deaths to a ‘police culture.’ The legal responsibility for overseeing the investigations is left to the prosecutor’s office. However, the MP tends to demand nothing more than the inclusion of only the necessary documents to file away the case. There are rarely dissenting opinions,” Misse wrote.

As for judges, Misse said the following: “The jury tribunal judges have a prerogative to respond to these cases, but, with only a few exceptions, they tend to dismiss them, due to the lack of minimal evidence on which to build an accusation.”

Cunha Junior qualified the judicial process as “a true hypocrisy. The military police pretend they are confronted by criminals, the civilian police pretend to investigate these confrontations, and the PM pretends to supervise the actions of the police and the veil of lies that hides everything, for the greater happiness of the nation,” he wrote. It is worth saying that this is valid for only part of the nation, because the other part is suffering.

“The majority of the confrontations occur because of deliberate incursions, made by the police in areas where they know they will find armed criminal groups. They can be considered scheduled duels that have little or nothing to do with citizen security. They only lead to repeated armed conflicts, an increased death toll, while also exposing police to a higher risk and imposing a greater amount of insecurity on the local population,” Cunha Junior wrote.

Something Broke

There are many stories of families destroyed because of police violence in Rio favelas. Ana Paula Gomes de Oliveira said that she is no longer the same person after the death of her son. “Something broke inside me. A part of me is destroyed. And it is the same for my entire family,” she said.

Her 19 year old son Jhonatha de Oliveira Lima died on May 14 after being shot in the back. He was the fifth to die due to the UPP Manguinhos division since their implementation. Why? How? Because of bad luck. He was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Jhonatha was a member of the military; he was not involved in crime. But on that day, there had been a confrontation between the UPP and residents, who were throwing rocks at the police. Jhonatha was walking from his grandmother’s house when he was shot. Deliberately? Accidentally? The investigation is still on-going.

“The police said that Jhonatha had a weapon and he shot at the police,” Gomes de Oliveira said. The Secretary of Public Security and the MP (which declined an interview request) confirmed that the police officer involved was indicted on charges of manslaughter (without intent to kill).

As the different studies cited in this report explained, the presence of first-hand witnesses impedes a case from being dismissed by the MP. However, when the case does not involve a violent confrontation with police, the justice system is less punitive against the police. How does one explain that the police responsible for Jhonatha’s death continue working in the UPP, as confirmed by the public Secretary of Public Security? For other members of the UPP, is the presence of the indicted police officer after a homicide not confirmation that “one can kill and nothing will happen?”

For other members of the UPP, is the presence of the indicted police officer after a homicide not confirmation that “one can kill and nothing will happen?”

After the death of her son, Ana Paula became an activist at the Social Forum of Manguinhos, and she recently went to Brasilia to support the project of deputy Paulo Teixeira (PT-SP) to end violent encounters with police. Her friend, Fatima dos Santos Pinho de Menezes, also lost her 18-year-old son at the hands of police and was a witness to the death of Jhonatha. Her son, Paulo Roberto Pinho de Menezes, was beaten to death and then suffocated by five police. The accused police were indicted for the crime of corporal injury after a death. They continue working, but in other units of the military police, while they await their trial.

The mothers of Paulo Roberto and Jhonatha know that the police strategy will be to present their sons as criminals in order to convince the jury that there was “legitimate defense.” It could be that, if the mentality of the justice system does not change, the police will be absolved. “In Brazil, criminals are deprived of all of their rights, including the most fundamental right, the right to life,” Zaccone wrote.

In his thesis, Zaccone made an interesting comparison to an Amnesty International investigation from 2011. The report found that, of the 20 countries that still have the death penalty around the world, 676 people were executed, not counting the capital punishments in China, which refused to release information. In the same period, just in the states of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo there were 961 deaths due to police actions. Zaccone noted that 2011 was celebrated in Brazil for its decrease in police violence.

“The death penalty, prohibited under the Brazilian Constitution, in reality is legalized by police and the justice department,” Zaccone concluded. In essence, a criminal does not deserve to live, and there is little importance given to whether or not they were in fact a criminal.

The executive director of Amnesty International in Brazil, Atila Roque, responded to the comparison made by Zaccone. “It is true that we need to defend the most forgotten in our society. Brazil is a country with strict punishments. We have the fourth largest prison population in the world. It is not true to say Brazil is a country of complete impunity. There is, however, a selective from of impunity in Brazil. The people that commit crimes still deserve rights; they are under state care and they cannot be victims of execution. A criminal does not have their rights suspended,” Roque said.

This idea is apparently not taught in police academies and is forgotten by Brazil’s justice system.

*This article was translated and reprinted with permission from Agencia Publica. See the Portuguese original here.

One reply on “Police Killings in Brazil: Legalized Violence”