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(São Paulo) – São Paulo state should conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into killings by police and ensure that officers who use unlawful force are held accountable, Human Rights Watch said in a letter sent today to Governor Geraldo Alckmin and State Attorney General Márcio Fernando Elias Rosa.

Human Rights Watch detailed its findings of extrajudicial executions by state police officers, who report that the killings resulted from shootouts. Human Rights Watch found that officers involved in these killings take the corpses to hospitals to destroy crime scene evidence under the false pretext of rescuing them, and in some cases plant evidence on their victims before forensic investigators arrive.

“Evidence gathered across cases in São Paulo shows a clear pattern of police executing victims and then covering up their crimes,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “One of the most effective ways to stop these heinous crimes is to hold the police who commit them accountable, which will send a clear message that the police can’t execute people and get away with it.”

Human Rights Watch examined 22 police killings from 2010 to 2012, in which the available evidence casts serious doubt on accounts by police claiming that the use of lethal force was justified, and instead suggests the killings were extrajudicial executions. In 20 of these cases, the officers involved removed victims from crime scenes and delivered them to hospitals in what they claimed were “rescue” attempts. Not one of the 20 “rescued” victims survived. In March 2011, for example, police shot Dileone Aquino at a cemetery in Ferraz de Vasconcelos. The officers claimed that Aquino was a suspected car robber who was wounded in a shootout following a car chase, and that they had rushed him to a hospital. However, a witness reported that she saw police drag Aquino from a police vehicle and shoot him at point blank range. The two officers involved were acquitted of homicide charges on May 23, 2013.

In November 2011, military police reported shooting two minors, Douglas Silva and Felipe Macedo Pontes, in self defense in São Bernardo do Campo. However, three witnesses gave statements to authorities that the minors were unarmed and the police in fact shot them, unprovoked. A fourth witness told police investigators that he arrived at the scene and saw Silva, unarmed and wounded, in police custody. The witness said Silva begged him to “call his mother and [her] neighbors because the police were going to kill him.” The civil police investigation into the shootings is still underway.    

Police officers in São Paulo often face real threats of violence, and undoubtedly some police killings are legitimate acts of self defense, Human Rights Watch said. This does not hold true for all police killings, however.

Human Rights Watch also analyzed the São Paulo Homicide Investigation Unit’s (Departamento de Homicídios e de Proteção à Pessoa) police reports of deaths by people shot while resisting arrest in São Paulo city in 2012. According to those reports, police transported 379 people to hospitals following these incidents, and 360 – or approximately 95 percent – ultimately died. That figure suggests a poor track record in saving the lives of people shot by police, Human Rights Watch said.

State authorities have taken important steps aimed at reducing police violence and improving accountability for those who commit abuses. The administration expanded the mandate of the Special Task Force on Police Control (Grupo de Atuação Especial de Controle Externo da Atividade Policial, or GECEP) in June 2010, to include investigating complaints of abuses committed by military police officers and closely tracking cases of police killings to identify patterns of abuse.

The state government also issued resolution SSP-05 in early January 2013, a directive that, together with accompanying orders from the Military Police Command, requires police not to remove shooting victims from crime scenes except when emergency services are unavailable or delayed, and with the permission of police authorities.

State officials have also repeatedly and publicly declared since January that alleged police abuses will be investigated and punished.

According to official figures, police killings in the state decreased by 34 percent during the first six months of 2013, from the same period in 2012.

Additional steps are needed to make the reforms of the São Paulo government more effective in reducing unlawful police killings and cover ups, Human Rights Watch said. Recommendations include the following:

  • Strictly enforce resolution SSP-05 and the Military Police Command’s orders to ensure that police only remove shooting victims from the scene in exceptional circumstances;
  • Issue a clear protocol to secure the safeguarding and analysis of the clothing of police shooting victims, which can be a critical source of evidence;
  • Require police officers to immediately notify prosecutors, including from the Special Task Force on Police Control prosecutorial unit, of fatalities resulting from police shootouts;
  • Strengthen the unit with more staff and resources so that it can rigorously monitor civil police investigations into police killings immediately after they occur; and
  • In cases where GECEP finds evidence that suggests police committed unlawful killings or cover ups, ensure that officers suspected of involvement are effectively prosecuted.

In a 2009 report, “Lethal Force,” Human Rights Watch documented 16 cases in São Paulo (and 35 in the state of Rio) in which police appeared to have executed people and then reported that the victims had died in shootouts while resisting arrest.

“The Alckmin government and the state attorney general’s office have taken important steps to address São Paulo’s serious problem of police executions and cover ups,” Vivanco said. “But if they do not reinforce these steps by strengthening the power of prosecutors and ensuring the preservation of key evidence in so-called ‘resistance’ killings, this horrific practice will continue.”

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