(São Paulo) — A resolution by Brazil’s Human Rights Defense Council outlines crucial steps needed to reduce unlawful killings by police, Human Rights Watch said today. The resolution calls on law enforcement officials at the state level to ensure that all killings by their police forces are properly investigated.
The council, led by Human Rights Minister Maria do Rosário, issued the resolution on November 28, 2012, following a public consultation with government officials, public security experts, and civil society representatives.
“Police officers in many parts of Brazil face real difficulties and dangers when confronting violent crime, and many of them have lost their lives in the line of duty,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Unfortunately, their legitimate efforts to enforce the law have often been undermined by other officers who themselves engage in unlawful violence, executing people and falsely claiming their victims died in shootouts.”
In a 2009 report, “Lethal Force: Police Violence and Public Security in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo,” Human Rights Watch documented how legitimate efforts to curb violent crime were undercut by police who misreported executions as “resistance killings” – in which the victims were shot after allegedly firing on the police – and by investigators who routinely failed to conduct proper inquiries into these cases. These findings have been corroborated by the United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, as well as other human rights monitors and government officials and entities – including, most recently, the Human Rights Defense Council.
The problem of misreporting received national attention last year in the widely publicized case of 11-year-old Juan de Moraes, who was killed on June 20, 2011, after an incident in Rio de Janeiro state in which three people were shot by military police, one fatally. Moraes was hit by police fire near his home in the Danon favela, but his body disappeared from the scene. It was found several days later dumped in a river. The police reported the incident as a “shootout” with “armed assailants,” yet for a week, no serious investigation was undertaken to determine what had taken place. It was only after the case received extensive media attention that civil police investigators analyzed evidence from the scene of the shooting and sought out testimony from witnesses, which indicated that there had been no shoot-out.
The Juan de Moraes case is not an isolated incident, Human Rights Watch said. More recently, on July 1, 2012, César Dias de Oliveira and Ricardo Tavares da Silva were fatally shot by police officers in São Paulo who reported two resistance killings following a “shootout.” Witnesses testified, however, that there had been no shootout and police had fired into the air while calling the military police operations hotline, appearing to fake a firefight.
The Defense Council’s resolution identifies basic tenets of homicide investigations with which law enforcement officials should comply for all cases in which the police allege a shooting resulted from resistance. These include promptly securing and analyzing the scene of the shooting, as well as the weapons and any vehicles involved in the incident; seeking out and collecting statements from witnesses; and analyzing the autopsy reports of those who died.
The resolution also emphasizes the role of police ombudsman offices and internal affairs units in monitoring police killings and the importance of periodic disclosures with the total number of police killings and the demographic characteristics of the victims. In addition, the resolution recommends that the current practice of classifying homicides committed by police as “resistance” killings be abolished.
“It is encouraging to see the federal government taking a lead on this critical issue and pointing the direction the states should follow,” Vivanco said. “By complying with the resolution, states could make real progress in reining in police abuse and ensuring that officers who kill unlawfully are brought to justice.”