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Brazil's Supreme Court Orders Plan to Reform Rio de Janeiro Police

In the last five years, Brazilian police killed 22,000 people, most of them Black

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

On February 3, 2022, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered Rio de Janeiro, a state where the problem of police abuse is particularly dire, to draft a plan to curb police killings that includes concrete measures, a timeline, and budget.

This was the main recommendation Human Rights Watch made at a hearing before the Court and in written submissions last year, in close collaboration with a range of local partners, including the Public Defender’s Office, Redes da Maré, Mães de Manguinhos, Coletivo Papo Reto, ISER, Justiça Global, Conectas, Amnesty International, and others. 

In its judgment, the full Court affirmed most of an earlier opinion by Justice Edson Fachin that cited Human Rights Watch’s research extensively.  This included positive measures such as forbidding police to use homes as bases of operation – a common practice, requiring them to have ambulances on stand-by during operations, and the creation of a permanent working group to monitor police work with participation of civil society. Unfortunately, the Court refused to order police protocols to be made public.  

Police abuse is a chronic human rights problem that Human Rights Watch has worked on for decades in Brazil. In the last five years, Brazilian police killed 22,000 people, most of them Black.

We have documented extrajudicial executions and other killings by police that are the result of the use of excessive force. We have also shown the failure of authorities to properly investigate those deaths and hold abusive officers accountable.  

Police abuse has a horrendous human toll, particularly on Black Brazilians living in low-income neighborhoods. It undermines public security and harms the police themselves, as I explained in this New York Times op-ed in August 2021. The suffering will not abate as long as there is no accountability.

In the past, President Jair Bolsonaro, a former army captain, has encouraged police violence and proposed legal changes that would make it harder to hold abusive officers accountable.

Human Rights Watch has been at the forefront of the fight against those damaging legislative proposals, and the impact of work by us and our partners last year in Rio de Janeiro shows progress is possible even under a reckless federal government.

In April 2021, families of victims, community associations, the Rio de Janeiro Public Defender’s Office, Human Rights Watch, and other organizations testified at a Brazil Supreme Court hearing about strategies to reduce police killings in Rio de Janeiro.

At Justice Fachin’s request, Human Rights Watch submitted recommendations for improving forensic analysis and investigations into police abuses. In May, Justice Fachin issued his opinion, which cites much of this testimony and devotes three of its 71 pages to quoting Human Rights Watch’s presentation at the hearing. Justice Fachin endorsed some of our recommendations, including the need for a plan to curb police killings, which the full Court has now also supported in its recent judgment.

Human Rights Watch has also been calling on State Prosecutor’s Offices around the country to investigate all police killings, and not leave investigations in the hands of police.

In June, a working group led by Rio de Janeiro federal prosecutors that includes the Public Defender’s Office, local non-governmental organizations, and other groups asked the National Council of Prosecutor’s Offices (CNMP, in Portuguese), a national body that oversees the country’s prosecutors, to do exactly that.

Human Rights Watch plans to engage the Rio state government to present our recommendations for an effective plan to curb police killings, in particular through improvements in investigations and in the work of the state Attorney General´s office to end impunity. And we will continue to seek comprehensive reform so that instead of terrorizing communities, police become effective, professional forces that serve them.

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