The states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro recorded upticks in the number of killings by Brazilian police during the first months of 2020, even while crime rates plunged and coronavirus cases surged.
According to a June 23 story in O Globo, police in the state of São Paulo killed 381 people between January and April of this year, or approximately one person every 7.5 hours.
This marks a 30 percent increase in police killings from 2019, when police units across São Paulo state were responsible for 291 deaths across the same four months.
The change in the state of Rio de Janeiro is less drastic: a one percent increase in police killings during the first five months of 2020 when compared to last year, according to the Public Security Institute (Instituto de Segurança Pública – ISP).
The 741 deaths, however, put Rio police forces on pace to match or slightly exceed their most lethal year on record in 2019, when 1,814 people were killed.
What's more, the bloodshed at the hands of police has continued despite a June 5 order from Brazil’s Supreme Court (Supremo Tribunal Federal – STF) that police halt their operations in the overcrowded and poor favelas lining the city of Rio’s perimeter. The judge cited concerns that the operations would spread the virus.
Yet the night after the injunction order, officers fired shots in the city’s Complexo do Alemão favela, residents told UOL -- the same neighborhood where police shot dead 13 people in the space of a few hours during a single operation in May.
Lethal force by police has trended up, even as crime rates have decreased across Brazil amid restriction measures for the coronavirus. In April, arrests were down 40 percent in São Paulo. In Rio de Janeiro, indicators for robberies and homicides have fallen drastically during the quarantine.
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Historically, police brutality in Rio de Janeiro has gained the most international attention. In 2019, the police killed twice as many civilians as the entire US police force, with a New York Times investigation establishing a pattern of Rio officers executing ambushes and firing multiple rounds at fleeing suspects.
Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro and Rio de Janeiro governor Wilson Witzel, who rose to power simultaneously in 2018 on tough-on-crime platforms, have fanned the flames of police violence. They’ve encouraged police to use force liberally against suspected criminals, and Bolsonaro has said that criminals should “die like cockroaches.”
But the governor of São Paulo, João Doria, is a vocal critic of Bolsonaro and police brutality. His state’s more liberal approach to policing had, until last year, kept the number of killings at less than half of those seen in the less-populous state of Rio.
Yet the recent increase of police killings in São Paulo suggests that the rhetoric of leaders can only do so much when police have been given a wide latitude to use lethal force.
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Deadly police raids in Rio de Janeiro’s and São Paulo’s impoverished favelas have compounded the health crisis facing residents, who are already suffering the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic.
Like in most countries, police violence in Brazil disproportionately impacts non-white communities. According to an investigation by O Globo, 78 percent of those killed by Rio de Janeiro police in 2019 were Black or mixed-race.
Brazil’s coronavirus pandemic has seen similar racial disparities. A study of 30,000 Brazilian coronavirus patients established a 38 percent mortality rate for the white patients but a 55 percent mortality rate for Black and mixed-race patients. Most of the country’s deaths have been reported in majority-Black neighborhoods in São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Violent police operations continuing in the favelas as Brazil’s pandemic response falters has even made it difficult for residents to receive what little aid is available to them amid a worsening health crisis. In some instances, police missions have actively impeded residents from receiving food and public health assistance.