On July 28, 2023, military police in São Paulo, Brazil, launched Escudo operation in the metropolitan area of Baixada Santista in response to the killing of an officer in the city of Guarujá, on the Atlantic coast about 90 km southeast of the city of São Paulo. Twenty-eight people have been killed in the operation, which ended on September 5th, making it one of the deadliest in São Paulo state since the Carandiru massacre in 1992.
The high number of killings comes on the heels of a significant decline in killings by police from 2020 to 2022. Following a series of measures by the government of São Paulo to reduce excessive use of force by the military police, on-duty policy killings in São Paulo dropped by 59 percent, according to official data. But since Governor Tarcísio de Freitas took office, in January 2023, on-duty police killings have picked up, increasing by 45 percent from January to September when compared to the same period the year before, and increased 86 percent when compared only the third trimester.
Human Rights Watch examined 26 police reports, photographic evidence, and 15 forensic autopsy reports, and interviewed authorities and community members, including a victim of a police beating and family members of three fatal victims.
Our analysis reveals significant failures in the initial steps of the police investigations into the killings during the Escudo operation. These investigations are carried out by the civil police, which function as state judicial police and investigate most criminal offenses; this branch of the police is distinct from the military police, which despite their name are not a branch of the national military but instead carry out patrols, the pursuit of suspected wrongdoers, and other activities that, at least in principle, aim to preserve public order.
Among the failings identified by Human Rights Watch:
- Civil police took statements from military police officers in groups, instead of individually, in 12 out of 26 cases. Group statements make it difficult to independently corroborate accounts.
- When civil police did take individual statements, they were brief and lacked detail.
- In six cases, civil police appeared to intend to pre-empt the outcome of the investigation by concluding solely on the basis of statements of officers involved in the shooting that military police had “clearly acted in self-defense.”
- Of the 26 police reports reviewed by Human Rights Watch, forensic analysis of the shooting sites was requested in 16. In 6 reports there is no information about forensic analysis of the shooting sites, and in 3 others, the civil police decided not to request the forensic analysis at the shooting sites citing heavy rains, dangerousness of the site, or other factors. Missing pages in another report make it impossible to determine whether police requested forensic analysis.
- In at least seven cases, bodies arrived for autopsies without clothes. Items of clothing are particularly relevant in estimating shooting distance and other circumstances of death.
- Police did not always request gunshot residue tests. Gunshot residue tests can help determine which officer shot the victim and whether the victim used a firearm. Such tests are particularly helpful where authorities claim victims had opened fire, as the military police said in 20 of the 26 police reports.
- HRW asked international forensic experts to review the 15 autopsies it had access to. These experts 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”.
- According to the Attorney General’s Office, police officers were wearing body cameras in 10 of the first 16 deaths, but images were recorded in only 6 of these cases. In 4 cases, cameras had no battery or had technical problems and did not record, the investigators said. Later the recordings of 3 other cases were sent to the Attorney General’s Office, amounting to 9 cases with recordings out of 28 deaths.
The use of body cameras and less-lethal weapons, the establishment of military commissions (comissões de mitigação de risco) to review cases of military police killings, check whether all operational procedures were followed and, if necessary, send the police officer for training, and strengthened psychological support to police officers involved in operations that led to killings are among the measures implemented since 2020 that contributed to the reduction of police killings.
São Paulo Governor Tarcísio de Freitas opposed the use of body cameras during his campaign in 2022. Less than half of military police units are currently equipped with body cameras, and Governor de Freitas has not acted to increase them.
At a press conference on July 31, 2023, Governor de Freitas said he was satisfied with the operation’s results, defended conduct of police during the operation as “extremely professional” and claimed that no abuses had taken place—although no independent investigations had yet been carried out. By then, eight people had been killed. After the death toll nearly doubled two days later, he changed tone and said authorities would investigate police conduct and “punish those responsible” in case of “excesses” or “failure.” In remarks that undermined this promise, however, State Public Security Secretary said in September 27 that the 28 people killed by police had “made their choice” and denied that any of these police killings were acts of retaliation or vengeance.
The Attorney General’s Office opened criminal investigations into the 28 killings, as well as a civil investigation into acts that might constitute human rights violations, and one administrative proceeding to monitor the investigations carried out by the police.
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. In less than a month between the end of July and August 2023, at least 62 people were killed during police operations in Bahia, Rio, and São Paulo states alone.
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.
Human Rights Watch has documented scores of cases in Rio de Janeiro and in São Paulo in which police officers intimidated witnesses, or manipulated and destroyed evidence, including by taking bodies to hospitals falsely claiming the victims were still alive and removing the victim’s clothes; as well as cases in which civil police failed to conduct adequate investigations into police killings, for instance by not visiting the crime scene.
Studies in Rio de Janeiro suggest police are significantly more likely to kill after an officer has been killed. One such study found, for example, that when a police officer is killed on duty, the chances of a person being killed by the police increases more than 1000 percent that day, 350 percent the following day, and 125 percent over the course of the week.
Prosecutors should lead fully independent investigations into killings by police, including by having forensic experts who are independent of the police conduct their own analysis of the evidence. They should also conduct their own interviews with all witnesses and victims, who may understandably fear talking to civil police investigators, whom they may not consider independent of the military police. Prosecutors should also determine whether the civil police have been carrying out thorough, impartial, and diligent investigative steps in every case, including in the investigations of the killings of police officers.
This report is based on the examination of 26 police reports, photos of two corpses, 15 forensic autopsy reports, and 19 interviews, including with the state police ombudsperson, representatives of the Attorney General’s Office, public defenders, members of the National Human Rights Commission and non-profit organizations as well as forensic experts, community members, including a victim of a police beating and family members of three fatal victims. We have withheld the names of the victims, relatives, and residents for security reasons.
All interviewees were informed of the purpose of the interviews and that their interviews might be used publicly. No incentives were offered or provided to persons interviewed. All interviews were conducted in Portuguese.
In addition, we analyzed state data publicly available and reviewed academic studies, reports, and other documents as well.
We sent information requests on the investigative steps taken by the civil police, but neither the Secretary of Public Security nor the Chief of the Civil Police had provided information at the time of writing.
The São Paulo Public Security Secretariat has stated that it launched Escudo operation on July 28, 2023, to identify, locate and arrest those involved in the homicide of a police officer the previous day. After the arrests of three suspects in the following days, the Secretariat of Public Security announced the operation would continue indefinitely, ostensibly to stifle drug trafficking and dismantle organized crime in the metropolitan area of Baixada Santista. Around 600 officers from different police units from across the state participated in the operation.
After more than a month and 28 killings, the Secretary of Public Security announced the end of Escudo operation on September 5, 2023.
Less than a week after the end of the operation, a retired sergeant was killed in front of his house, which led to the state government’s decision on September 8 to launch a new Escudo operation, this time focusing on the city of São Vicente. On the same day, policemen went after alleged suspects in the killing, shots were exchanged, and a police officer was injured. During the action, three other people were hit, including a 22-year-old woman who died from a gunshot wound. Two other men were killed by the police in this new operation.
Consistent Accounts of Police Abuse
Civil police took statements from military police involved in the killings on the day of the shootings. In those statements, military police said they acted in legitimate self-defense in response to attacks or threats by suspected criminals.
Yet family members and residents tell a different story.
In one case, a police officer said a man shot at the police three times, but a family member told Human Rights Watch the victim was not able to properly hold a hairdryer – let alone a gun – as an accident had cost him the movement of three fingers and his career as a hairdresser years ago.
The relative also stated that while the family was waiting to recognize the body at the Institute of Legal Medicine, the forensic doctor received several phone calls, after which they were not allowed to see the body and instead had to identify him through a picture of one of his tattoos. At the burial, family members spotted injuries to his head and arms other than gunshot wounds, including what they believe to be cigarette burns. Neighbors told family members and the press they heard the victim screaming before he was shot dead.
The autopsy report reviewed by Human Rights Watch does not mention cigarette burns, injuries or other signs that could indicate he was tortured but does describe six gunshot wounds in the front and one from the side. The civil police did not request an examination of the crime scene, citing heavy rains and the fact that people were living in the area.
In another case, the police said that during an early morning operation they were shot at by a man who then tried to hide inside a house, injuring an officer. The other officers entered the place and were shot at but responded with five shots. The man died before medical services arrived. A witness told the press that the police was trying to catch someone who escaped, and after that they entered the house and shot a man while he was asleep. When the mother tried to get closer to the crime scene to recognize her son, an officer threatened to shoot her and her grandchild if she did not go away immediately.
Other residents reported similar abuses during the operation.
A man interviewed by Human Rights Watch said three police officers entered his home on August 4, around 8 p.m., without judicial authorization and threatened to shoot him in the head in front of his 2-year-old daughter, his mother and his brother who has a mental condition. The officers asked if he had a criminal record. One of the policemen punched him in the face. He said that the only reason he was not killed was because his mother intervened claiming they were part of a church. On the same day, he said, his mother tried to report the abuse at a civil police station but couldn't. Police officers told her to go to another station, and when she arrived there, they told her to go to another one. She gave up.
One woman described the climate of fear in her community. She said the police imposed an informal curfew order and threatened to shoot anyone with a criminal record who was not back home by 8 p.m. She also said that “everyone is afraid of being shot in a crossfire” and that her children are so scared that they don’t want to go to school. Another community member reported the police were using one of the schools to park their vehicles, and that they entered the school highly armed to use the bathrooms, scaring children and staff. Yet another community member said her daughters arrived home crying because they were on the school's playground when a bullet almost hit one of them. She did not want to go back to school.
In other cases, the circumstances of police killings—involving victims who lived far from Baixada Santista, were not known to travel there regularly, and, in the opinion of family members, were unlikely to have made spur-of-the-moment decisions to be in those places—raise troubling questions.
In one such case, police reported that the victim was armed and had pointed a gun at the policemen when he was killed with four gunshots. Later, the police report was amended to state that the victim had opened fire. The officers said they found a backpack with 446 packets of marijuana and 357 cocaine baggies close to where they had spotted him with other two men who were able to escape the police. According to the autopsy report, he was shot in the chin, in the leg and in the arm, from front to back, and had a superficial gunshot wound in the back.
A relative interviewed by Human Rights Watch challenged the police account. According to her, the man had never been to Guarujá and was living on the streets of São Paulo, more than 90 kilometers away by road. The family had access to his bank account and tracked his moves by monitoring the places from which he withdrew the money they gave him monthly. The records showed he was in São Paulo five days before being killed. He did not have an identification document or enough money to travel to Guarujá, according to the relative. “He was living with very little money; it makes no sense for him to be in Guarujá with a huge quantity of drugs and with a gun, as stated on the police report,” she said.
According to media reports, another two victims were also from other cities and their families have no idea why they would be in Baixada Santista on the day of their killings or how they got there.
The São Paulo police ombudsperson told Human Rights Watch he has received dozens of reports of police abuses, including extrajudicial killings, torture, beatings, home invasions, intimidations, and threats. The São Paulo Bar Association and the Network of Protection and Resistance Against Genocide have received similar reports.
Investigative Failures by Police
Human Rights Watch reviewed 26 police reports which account for 27 cases of police killings, as well as autopsy reports for 15 victims, and found important gaps in the investigation of the killings.
The autopsy reports show three people were shot at close range, two were shot in the back, and five had gunshot wounds from multiple directions.
They also show that at least seven of the bodies arrived for autopsy analysis unclothed. In three of them, victims were taken to medical emergency services, but arrived there dead, which would not justify removing their clothes for medical care. In the other four, corpses were taken directly from the crime scene to the Institute of Legal Medicine and had no clothes at the time of the autopsy exam. Items of clothing are particularly relevant to estimate shooting distance and other circumstances of death and should always be preserved for analysis according to international standards.
Human Rights Watch also found contradictions between the autopsy reports and the police reports. Three police reports state that the victim was taken to a medical unit, while the forensic report states that the victims were taken straight to the Institute of Legal Medicine.
In 12 out of the 26 cases, civil police did not question military police officers individually, but in groups. Witnesses should be interviewed separately to avoid undue influence as well as to allow investigators to corroborate the information they have provided by contrasting it with other statements and evidence.
Of the 26 police reports reviewed, in 6 police failed to request forensic analysis of the shooting sites, and 3 other reports said forensic analysis of the site was not to be conducted for several reasons, including that it was raining in one case. In another, the last page was missing, meaning that it was not possible to determine whether police had requested the analysis. Brazilian law and international standards require the police to isolate and preserve the sites of deadly shootings for forensic analysis. Brazilian law also requires a forensic expert to analyze the crime scene and collect blood, hair, fibers, and other evidence.
Nine police reports request gunshot residue tests of the victims. Three mention tests of the officers involved in the shooting, not the victim, and another four are unclear on who would be tested. Properly conducted gunshot residue tests, using adequate technology and protocols, can provide valuable evidence as to whether the victims used a firearm and had indeed opened fire against the officers, as the military police claimed in 20 of the police reports. The only complementary exam that is requested in the autopsy reports is the toxicology exam, in 7 of 15 cases.
Expert Opinion on the Autopsy Reports
In response to a Human Rights Watch request, the Independent Forensic Expert Group (IFEG) of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims (IRCT), an international group of pre-eminent forensic experts, reviewed the 15 autopsies and provided its expert opinion on some elements of the investigation.
According to the expert opinion, international standards outlined by the Minnesota Protocol do not appear to have been followed, and the examinations were not sufficiently thorough nor comprehensive to investigate the possibility of excessive use of lethal force, violence or torture and situations of extra-legal, arbitrary, and summary executions.
According to the specialists, clothes of deceased do not appear to have been collected for further investigation, and seven deceased arrived without clothes; and there is no indication that the deceased were carefully examined, nor that essential evidence sampling was performed, in particular gunshot residue. Colleting clothing and skin samples are particularly relevant in fire-related deaths. According to them, the results of the laboratory examination are fundamental to an “adequate and complete reconstruction of events and manner and circumstance of death”, which includes the distance and positions from which the gun was discharged.
Moreover, they affirm that the autopsy reports contain scant documentation of external injuries other than the gunshot wounds, and that dissection of subcutaneous tissues, important for detecting deep injuries that are not often visible externally, does not appear to have been appropriately performed.
The experts conclude 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”.
Threats to the Ombudsperson’s Work
The São Paulo police Ombudsperson told Human Rights Watch he had received two death threats and a very concerning call, which he attributed to retaliation to his work collecting abuse allegations in this case and speaking publicly about them.
On August 2, he filed a police report after learning about a death threat in a WhatsApp group of police officers. The message said: “it took too long to kill these thugs,” that the police ombudsperson “should die too,” and that this is “going to become a war and I’m ready”. On August 9, he filed a second report after an individual called his office to inquire about his schedule, vehicle, and whereabouts. On September 19, a person called the ombudsperson’s headquarters and reported that someone else told her to be “fed up with everything” and to be “willing to kill the ombudsperson”.
The ombudsperson informed the Secretary of Public Security of all threats received and sent four requests for increased security for him and his family but received no answer from the Secretariat.
On October 6th, the Attorney General’s office filed a lawsuit against a retired police officer for racial slurs and threats against the ombudsperson.
Criminal Investigation of Commanders by State Prosecutors
Under Brazilian law, prosecutors can conduct criminal investigations into police commanders, if the evidence warrants it, for “malfeasance,” which punishes public servants for failing to properly carry out their duties “due to personal interest or disposition,” with up to one year in prison.
The São Paulo Attorney General’s Office should investigate all the way up the chain of command, including the responsibility of civilian and police commanders who planned and ordered the operation, to ensure full accountability for abuses.
Brazil is obligated to conduct proper investigations into killings by security forces and determine if they were lawful or not.
In 2017, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled that in cases of killings, torture or sexual violence by police there should be “an independent body, distinct from the police force involved in the incident… in charge of the investigation, such as a judicial authority or the Public Prosecution Service, assisted by police, criminalistic and administrative personnel unrelated to the law enforcement agency to which the possible perpetrator or perpetrators belong.”
Similarly, Brazil’s Supreme Court has asserted that Brazil’s Constitution tasks the prosecutor’s office with ensuring accountability for police abuses. In a 2020 preliminary decision, Supreme Court justice Edson Fachin found that investigations of police abuses carried out by civil police do not meet the “requirement of impartiality, required by international human rights treaties,” stressing that the prosecutor’s office should conduct its own investigations in cases of suspected police misconduct.
In 2022, Brazilian police killed 6,429 people – 13.6 percent of the 47,398 homicides registered that year. Brazil urgently needs an effective public security policy that can prevent violent crimes, dismantle criminal organizations, and protect civilians and officers alike.
To the Secretary of Public Security of the state of São Paulo
Curb Excessive Use of Force
The Secretary of Public Security should urgently resume and expand measures to control police forces and the use of force, including by ensuring 100 percent of the police force wears functioning body cameras and by increasing the availability of less lethal weapons, insisting on requirements that any use of force be proportionate.
The use of body cameras has in recent years helped to reduce the use of force, provide strong evidence, protect police officers, improve police activity, and provide transparency and legitimacy, among other benefits.
Protocol for Preventing Retaliation Operations
The Public Security Secretary and police commanders should enact guidelines to prevent retaliation operations after the killing of a police officer. Such guidelines should ensure that:
- Police officers from the victim’s unit receive immediate psychological and social support.
- Police officers from the victim’s unit are not employed in operations in response to the killing of an officer.
- The Public Security Secretariat immediately informs the Attorney General’s Office and the ombudsperson’s office of all police operations initiated after a police officer is killed.
- The Public Security Secretariat sends a written explanation with the operational plan to the Attorney General’s Office.
- Body cameras are worn by all officers involved in the operation.
Guarantee the Ombudsperson's Safety
The Secretary of Public Security should urgently increase the protection for the ombudsperson and his family, ensure that he has the means to do his work, and investigate the threats against him.
To the São Paulo Attorney General's Office
Prosecutors, who have the constitutional duty to oversee police activity, should conduct their own investigations into all killings and suspected human rights violations by security forces. They should also review all state police protocols and training, including on the use of force, and ensure they comply with Brazilian and international human rights standards.
Prosecutors should also strengthen oversight of police activities, including by ensuring that police investigations abide by the UN Manual on the Effective Prevention and Investigation of Extra-legal, Arbitrary and Summary Executions (the Minnesota Protocol). In case of killings, for instance, the crime scenes should be preserved by police officers who are not themselves involved in the shooting. All evidence, including the clothing of victims, should be preserved and the chain of custody of such evidence should be recorded and respected.
Public prosecutors should collaborate with public defenders, the police ombudsperson, and legal representatives of families of the victims.
Moreover, prosecutors should urge the state to expand the use of body worn cameras by police and monitor compliance with the protocols in place, issuing regular reports on their findings.
The Attorney General's Office should also work with the Secretariat of Public Security and police command to develop and implement guidelines to ensure compliance and in particular to prevent retaliation operations.
This report was written by Anna Livia Arida, Associate Director of Human Rights Watch’s Brazil office. It was reviewed and edited by Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil Director, César Muñoz, Associate Director of the Americas division, Juanita Goebertus, Director of the Americas Division, Michael Garcia Bochenek, Senior Legal Advisor, and Maria McFarland Sanchéz-Moreno, Deputy Program Director. Senior Research Assistant Andrea Carvalho provided research support.
We would like to thank the relatives of victims and community members who spoke with us. We are also very grateful to the Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Instituto Sou da Paz for their advice; to the Independent Forensic Expert Group of the International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims for the expert opinion; and to the state police ombudsperson, who is conducting very important work in difficult circumstances.
We would also like to thank Mães de Maio and Rede de Proteção contra o Genocídio who are working to support victims and their families, and Conectas Direitos Humanos, Instituto Vladmir Herzog, Anistia Internacional and São Paulo Bar Association for their efforts to bring attention to this case.
Finally, we would like to thank state prosecutors, public defenders, the State Council for the Defense of Human Rights and the National Council for Human Rights for their assistance with our research.