New York, February 16, 2017
To the Rio de Janeiro Attorney General
Esteemed Attorney General,
It was a great pleasure to meet you and your team at the Ministério Público in Rio de Janeiro last month. I am sorry we were unable to accept your invitation to attend your inaugural ceremony, but hope that we will be able to continue our dialogue and build a constructive working relationship with your office.
We were impressed by your plans to create a more effective Ministério Público through the use of empirical analysis and a more systematic monitoring of public policy. We were especially encouraged by your commitment to ensuring that alleged abuses by security forces are rigorously and fairly investigated and that perpetrators are brought to justice.
As you know, Human Rights Watch has been following the security situation in Rio de Janeiro very closely for many years. We have been particularly concerned by the extraordinarily high levels of killings by police, which have more than doubled in the last three years, reaching 920 in 2016. While many of those killings are likely the result of the legitimate use of force, others are in reality extrajudicial killings, as we and other organizations have documented. The state has failed to properly investigate and prosecute these cases.
This cycle of abuse and impunity has taken an enormous toll, not only on the communities where the killings occur, but also on the police force itself, undermining their ability to do their jobs well. We have seen with great concern the increase in police officers killed in the state in the last few years.
So long as impunity remains the norm, unlawful police killings will continue to occur in large numbers, and efforts to improve public security in Rio de Janeiro—though initiatives such as the UPPs—are likely to fail.
Responsibility for the failure to curb impunity for police abuses lies primarily with the Ministério Público. While the civil police also share much of the blame—given their failure to adequately investigate these cases—the Ministério Público has the ultimate authority to exert “external control” over the police and ensure proper investigations. However, under your predecessors, the institution has largely failed to properly exercise this authority.
Fortunately, as we discussed in our meeting, we believe you have a mechanism at your disposal that could change this—namely the Group of Specialized Action in Public Security, or GAESP, which is responsible for investigating unlawful killings and other abuses by police (as well as abusive practices in prisons). There are several very important benefits to having a prosecutorial unit that focuses on police killings throughout the state: the members of the unit can develop expertise in evidentiary and legal dimensions of this type of case; they can analyze patterns of abuse and recognize modi operandi; and they can identify and investigate specific police units and individual officers responsible for large numbers of potentially unlawful killings.
For the GAESP to succeed, however, it will need to receive significantly more support from your office than it did under your predecessor. As we discussed in our meeting, we believe that it is crucial that you take the following steps, as detailed in our 2016 report “´Good Cops are Afraid.´ The Toll of Unchecked Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro”:
- Assign more prosecutors to the GAESP.
GAESP currently lacks enough prosecutors to investigate the hundreds of backlogged cases of police killings and hundreds of new cases that occur every year. As of January 2017, the GAESP had been assigned only five prosecutors to handle these cases, and these five also continued to carry a full load of unrelated cases, four of them as district prosecutors and one as a prosecutor within the military justice system. The attorney general should assign more prosecutors to the GAESP and/or have a significant number of them work full-time at the GAESP.
- Provide the GAESP with technical support from forensic experts.
GAESP prosecutors—like all other Rio prosecutors—rely on the Group of Specialized Technical Support (GATE, in Portuguese) within the Attorney General’s Office to provide technical support in their investigations. However, the GATE has no forensic technicians with expertise in key elements of homicide investigations, such as crime scene and ballistics analyses. This lack of expertise severely limits the GAESP’s capacity to carry out its own investigations of police killings, as they have to rely on civil police experts.
- Seek commitment by civil police to inform GAESP of police killings within 24 hours.
The Attorney General’s Office has not sought implementation of the September 2015 resolution by the National Council of the Offices of Prosecutors to have the civil police inform prosecutors of a police killing within 24 hours. As a result, as one prosecutor emphasized, they still often only learn about police killings 30 or more days after they occur. By then, it is too late to monitor the crucial early stages of the civil police investigation.
- Grant GAESP prosecutors concurrent jurisdiction over police killings.
Under the 2015 resolution that established the GAESP, the unit’s prosecutors cannot investigate a police killing case unless they are invited to do so by the prosecutor with jurisdiction over that case, who is called “promotor natural” in Portuguese. (The “promotor natural” in homicide cases can be either a prosecutor responsible for the geographical area where the crime took place or a prosecutor responsible for cases investigated by the homicide division of the civil police.) Brazilian law prohibits taking a case away from the “promotor natural,” but it does not preclude an additional prosecutor from investigating the case. To prevent the GAESP from being blocked from investigating cases by the very prosecutors who for years have failed to investigate these cases properly, the attorney general should grant the GAESP prosecutors concurrent jurisdiction over police killings, so that they can pursue investigations without authorization from the prosecutor designated by law.
In closing, let me reiterate the fundamental lesson we have learned over the years in our work in Rio de Janeiro, as well as throughout Brazil and around the world: impunity fosters the perpetuation of abuses. Ensuring accountability for crimes committed by police officers would strengthen the rule of law in Rio de Janeiro, help regain the trust of communities, and protect the many good police officers who abide by the law. Under your leadership, Rio´s Ministério Público can become a transformational force that makes a key contribution to turning around the current security dynamics in Rio.
We congratulate you again for the appointment to serve as Rio´s Attorney General and wish you the best of luck for your tenure. We remain available to support the Ministério Público´s mission in any way we can.
Managing Director, Americas Division
Human Rights Watch
CC: Eliane de Lima Pereira, Human Rights and Minorities Advisor at Ministério Público do Estado do Rio de Janeiro