João Maria Figueiredo was only 34 when I met him at the end of 2016 at a meeting of the Brazilian Public Security Forum. A stocky, exuberant military police officer from Rio Grande do Norte state, he already projected an air of experience. At the time, a colleague and I were collecting testimony from officers like João, who had faced disproportionate punishment for expressing opinions that diverged from those of their superiors.
With his melodic northeastern accent and commanding voice, João laid out an articulate and impassioned defense of officers’ rights. He understood the importance of effective policing to protect communities from violent crime and criticized abusive practices by some police officers that undermine the institution’s effectiveness. He contributed immensely to our research, detailing his story of fighting for reforms and sharing his many contacts throughout Brazil.
Sadly, this holiday season, assassins stole this young and active policeman from our midst. Two as-yet-unidentified assailants shot João as he drove a motorcycle in the outskirts of the state capital. Wounded in the shoulder, João tried to flee, but the gunmen, pursuing on foot, kept firing until he succumbed.
The news hit me hard, but it wasn’t entirely surprising. João was an outspoken policeman with strong views on public security. Friends had reported that he was receiving threats.
It’s a bad time to lose a voice as powerful as João’s. It looks like we are in for more of the trigger-happy behavior that has escalated both police and civilian deaths: Instead of denouncing the excessive use of force by police, the new government has embraced a militarized approach to policing.
João was a leader in the “Police Against Fascism" movement, which brings together civilian and military police who favor working more closely with the people they protect in the interest of improving public security. The nonprofit Brazilian Forum on Public Security reports that violence reached a new record in 2017, with about 64,000 homicides. Officers, both on- and off-duty, killed 5,144 people that year, 20 percent more than the year before.
The people who gunned João down may have been making good on the threats against him. Police investigators told media the killers did not take João´s money or his motorcycle. They believe he was most likely executed.
João became part of a sad statistic in which, on average, one police officer is killed every day in Brazil - 367 in 2017 alone, the last full year for which official statistics exist. This is the flip side of a grisly trend of a high rate of killings by police.
When advocating for a police force that is closer and more cooperative with the community, João probably knew that the high numbers of civilian and police deaths may be related. When police behave like an occupying army, fighting the enemy, in the communities they are assigned to protect, law-abiding citizens are less likely to warn them of incipient attacks or to assist in their investigations. Criminals, when cornered by police, are less likely to surrender peacefully if they believe they will be executed in the street. These were precisely the points that João was trying to make in the advocacy he bravely pursued until his untimely death.
Rio de Janeiro´s new governor, Wilson Witzel, f has said that police should shoot anyone carrying an assault rifle to kill, without warning, even if the person is not threatening anyone. To be clear, international human rights standards allow police to deliberately kill someone only when necessary to protect their own or other people’s lives.
As João kept pointing out, much more needs to be done to protect the rights and the lives of police, and also to ensure that they are properly protecting the communities they serve.