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Brazil: Inquiry in Police Killings Falls Short

Authorities Should Ensure Accountability, Prevent ‘Revenge Operations’

A resident protests a deadly police operation in Baixada Santista, in São Paulo, Brazil, on August 2, 2023. © 2023 ALLISON SALES/AFP via Getty Images
  • Initial steps taken by civil and forensic police to investigate 28 killings during a July 2023 police operation in São Paulo state have been inadequate, and did not comply with international standards.
  • Brazil has long had a serious problem with excessive use of force by police. “Revenge operations” after a police officer is killed pose a particular problem.
  • Federal and state authorities should adopt protocols to prevent “revenge operations.” Investigations of police killings should include proper forensic analysis and be led by prosecutors.

(São Paulo) – The initial steps taken by civil and ‘scientific’ police to investigate 28 killings during a July 2023 military police operation in Baixada Santista, in São Paulo state, Brazil, have been inadequate and did not comply with international standards, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.  

In the 19-page report, “‘They Promised to Kill 30’: Police Killings in Baixada Santista, São Paulo State, Brazil,” describes the important failures in the initial steps of police investigations. Law enforcement officers initiated the so-called Escudo (“shield”) operation in Baixada Santista, a metropolitan area on the coast of São Paulo state, on July 28, 2023, in response to the killing of an officer in the city of Guarujá. By September 5, when the operation ended, the military police had killed 28 people, making it one of the deadliest police operations in São Paulo state in 3 decades. Another three officers were also injured during the operation.

“The initial investigations into the 28 killings by civil and ‘scientific’ police in São Paulo state have been woefully inadequate and do not meet international standards,” said Juanita Goebertus, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Thorough, independent, and prompt investigations, including proper forensic analysis, are crucial and need to be led by prosecutors instead of relying on police investigators.”

The civil police functions as state judicial police and investigates most criminal offenses and works in close collaboration with the ‘scientific police,’ which is responsible for carrying out forensic analysis.

Human Rights Watch examined police reports into 27 of the killings and 15 autopsy reports; interviewed authorities, family members of victims, and community members; and documented threats against the state police ombudsperson.

At Human Rights Watch’s request, the Independent Forensic Expert Group of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims, an international group of pre-eminent forensic experts, reviewed 15 preliminary autopsy reports and found they did not comply with international standards. The expert opinion concluded that “based on the preliminary autopsy reports, the postmortem examinations of the fifteen individuals are ineffective and fail to meet minimum acceptable standards on the investigation of firearm related deaths in the context of police action.”

Brazil has long had a serious problem with excessive use of force by police. Police killed more than 6,400 people in 2022, according to the nonprofit Brazilian Forum of Public Security, which compiles the data from official sources at the state level. While some killings by police are in self defense, many result from excessive use of force, contributing to a cycle of violence that undermines public security and endangers the lives of civilians and police alike. Human Rights Watch has identified serious failures in civil police investigations into killings by police.

On-duty police killings increased 86 percent in the third trimester of 2023 in São Paulo state when compared to the same period of 2022.

Human Rights Watch sent an information request on the investigative steps taken, but neither the São Paulo public security secretary nor the civil police chief have provided the information.

Among the concerns are the following:

  • Of the 26 police reports reviewed, police failed in 6 to request forensic analysis of the shooting sites, and 3 others noted that no forensic analysis of the site would be conducted, in one case because it was raining.
  • Civil police took statements from military police officers in groups, instead of individually, in at least 12 out of 26 cases, making it extremely difficult to independently corroborate the information given.
  • In at least seven cases, São Paulo forensic experts noted bodies arrived without clothes for the autopsy. The international forensic experts said it is essential to collect samples of clothes and from skin to help clarify the “manner and circumstances of the death.”
  • Military police officers claimed in 20 of the 26 police reports that they opened fire after the victims shot at them. In the other six they said the person pulled a gun and was about to shoot. But civil police did not request gunshot residue tests in 9 cases, in 2 of the other cases requested tests of the victims and in 3 only of the officers.
  • There is some police body camera footage for only 9 of the 28 killings, according to the São Paulo Attorney General’s Office.

São Paulo Governor Tarcisio de Freitas initially said that police had committed no abuses during the operation. As the death toll increased, he said the authorities would investigate police conduct and “punish those responsible” in case of “excesses” or “failures.” But the state public security secretary said that the authorities do not seek to engage in a report of a shootout, and that the 28 people had “made their choice.” 

On October 16, the governor gave awards to some of the officers who were part of Operation Escudo.

The São Paulo Attorney General’s Office opened criminal investigations into the 28 killings, as well as a civil investigation into human rights violations, along with an administrative proceeding to monitor the investigations carried out by civil police.

In recent years, numerous police operations following the killing of an officer have resulted in substantial numbers of police killings throughout Brazil. Studies in Rio de Janeiro suggest police are more likely to kill during such operations.

Public security authorities in São Paulo, other states, and at the federal level should adopt protocols to prevent “revenge operations,” Human Rights Watch said. Steps should include ensuring that police officers from units whose members have been killed receive immediate psychological and social support and do not participate in operations in response to the officer’s killing. Body cameras should be worn by all officers involved in the operation. In addition, the Public Security Secretariat should always send a written explanation with the operational plan to the Attorney General’s Office and should routinely inform the state police ombudsperson’s office of all police operations initiated after a police officer is killed, Human Rights Watch said.

“Some of the deadliest police operations in Brazil, such as Operation Escudo in Baixada Santista, have been conducted in response to the killing of a police officer,” Goebertus said. “Public security authorities should take immediate measures to prevent revenge operations and uphold the law.”

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