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Police Killings are Out of Control in Rio de Janeiro

Putting Police Under Army’s Mandate Has Failed to Stem Bloodshed

Policemen patrol the Rocinha favela in Rio de Janeiro on September 14, 2012.  © 2012 Reuters
In January, the military police of the Brazilian state of Rio de Janeiro pledged to reduce killings by its officers by 20 percent by the end of the year. But from January to July, the number of police killings actually increased by 39 percent, as compared with the same period last year. Military and civil police killed 895 people during those months. At the current rate, the state will have its bloodiest year in more than a decade.

Some do not see this as a problem. There is a persistent view in Brazil that the best way to reduce crime is to carry out military-style raids in poor neighborhoods. Some are untroubled by how often these kill suspects – and the occasional bystander.

That explains, for example, an operation in June, when a police helicopter allegedly opened fire in Rio’s heavily-populated Maré neighborhood. Police never confirmed they opened fire, but residents counted more than a hundred bullet marks on the ground. Seven people died in the raid, including 14-year-old Marcos Vinícius da Silva, who was on his way to school. Before he died, da Silva told his mother the bullet that hit him came from an armored vehicle. “Didn´t they see my school uniform?”, he asked her.

In a report to prosecutors, the civil police called the operation “a great success.”

Six months ago today, the president of Brazil put public security and prisons in Rio de Janeiro in the hands of the army. In May, I met General Walter Braga Netto, the person in charge, who explained his plans to provide shooting practice for police and improve equipment.

Important measures, but he didn’t acknowledge that establishing trust between the community and the police is critical in reducing crime. And you cannot do that when residents see the police as a force that endangers their children´s lives.

While Rio Police sometimes do kill people in self-defense, research from Human Rights Watch and other groups shows that many killings are, in reality, extrajudicial executions.

Police brutality feeds the cycle of violence. And abuses by some officers put other officers in danger. Seventy police officers have been killed in Rio this year.

Braga Netto´s plan includes many public security goals, but ignores the military police’s promise at the beginning of the year to lower police killings, and says nothing about punishing officers who commit abuses.

A public security plan that turns a blind eye when police use lethal force illegally can never be called a success.


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