A military police armored vehicle passes by a person killed by police on April 7, 2016 in the Jacarezinho favela. Military police killed tow other people during the same raid. 

© 2016 Carlos Cout

(São Paulo) – A bill unveiled by Jair Bolsonaro´s government in Brazil on February 4 could be used to let police officers who kill people in unjustifiable circumstances evade punishment, Human Rights Watch said today.

“The new bill could spur an increase in unjustifiable killings by police,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “That would antagonize the very communities whose cooperation the police desperately need to fight crime, and fuel a cycle of violence that puts everyone at risk, including other police officers.”

Under the legislative proposal, a judge could suspend the sentences of people who claimed self-defense at trial but were still convicted of homicides and other crimes if the judge determines that they acted out of “excusable fear, surprise, or intense emotion.” Police officers often justify extrajudicial executions by falsely contending that they acted in self-defense after criminals shot at them, Human Rights Watch research shows.

The bill does not offer any criteria to determine in what circumstances “fear,” “surprise,” or “intense emotion” are “excusable,” allowing judges to potentially suspend sentences in an unacceptably broad set of circumstances, even after juries have found that police officers should be held accountable for an unlawful killing.

Brazil has an obligation to prevent unlawful police killings and other violent abuses, including by investigating, prosecuting, and punishing such crimes. Sanctions for abuses should be proportionate to their gravity.

The new bill would condone police killings in a range of unacceptable circumstances, including in response to or in anticipation of relatively minor acts of violence that pose no risk to any person’s life.

The latest national data show that Brazilian police killed 5,144 people in 2017. In Rio de Janeiro state, police killed 1,530 people in 2018, according to the Public Security Institute (ISP, in the Portuguese acronym), a state agency. That means that Rio finished the year with the highest number of police killings since the state started collecting that data in 1998. The previous record was 1,330 in 2007.

Justice Minister Sergio Moro has defended the bill, contending that officers should not be required to “wait to be shot” before reacting. This is a false argument, which misconstrues the serious problem with this bill, Human Rights Watch said. International human rights standards do not require officers to wait to be shot at before acting in self-defense or the defense of others. What they do require is that police use firearms only when necessary to protect themselves or others against an imminent threat to life or serious injury. These principles are clearly laid out under the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which Brazil should model any new legislation on.

To be compatible with human rights standards, laws should restrict deliberate killings by police to an even greater degree than the use of firearms more generally, Human Rights Watch said. They should make clear that any deliberate killing by a police officer should only be lawful if strictly unavoidable to protect a person’s life.

While some police killings in Brazil are justifiable, Human Rights Watch research has shown that many others are extrajudicial executions. These pit communities against the police and make residents less likely to report crime and help with investigations, Human Rights Watch said. Illegal killings by some police officers also endanger other officers, subjecting them to reprisals by gang members and making suspects less likely to surrender when cornered. In 2017, 367 police officers were killed nationwide.

The bill has other problems as well. It would allow any hearing to be conducted via videoconference to reduce costs, which would make it difficult for judges to detect signs of torture and mistreatment of detainees.