WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
29 Jul 2016 | Commentary

Police Lethality in Brazil: Is There a Racial Bias?


This article is the first in a series looking at the need for police reform in the hemisphere. WOLA advocates for police forces that advance citizen security while protecting human rights, and for efforts that dignify the men and women who serve.

An Analysis by the Numbers

In recent years, international attention has rightly focused on U.S. police killings of African-American citizens, the outrage and public protests that have resulted, and the attempts by public officials, with mixed success, to address structural impediments to change. In the same past two years, the killings by Brazilian police of young Afro-Brazilian men has reached record levels, with little attempt to address this phenomenon at either state or federal levels.

Homicide rates in Brazil are a staggering 60,000 annually, according to the most recent monitoring report of the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety (Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública). More than half of these are homicides of young men aged 15 to 29. The rate of young Afro-Brazilians killed is 37.5 per 100,000 people, while the rate for whites is 15.6. Although the focus on homicide rates tends to be on Rio, the killing of Afro-Brazilians at the hands of police has increased most dramatically in the Northeast of the country. For example, in Recife, capital of the state of Pernambuco, white youth are killed at a rate of 13.9 per 100,000 people, while the rate of killings of black youth is 185. In Maceio, capital of the state of Alagoas, the rate is 24.3 for white youth and 327.6 for black youth.

Throughout the country, but especially in Rio, as Amnesty International has pointed out, police are responsible for an alarming number of those deaths. This trend is confirmed by a Human Rights Watch report issued this July that notes Rio police have killed 8,000 people in the past decade, including at least 645 in 2015. Noting that many police killings involve the legitimate use of force, the report points out many others were extrajudicial executions.

While these figures are alarmingly high, they are most likely an underestimate of figures for the country as a whole. Since the jurisdiction for the two main police organizations—the Military Police and Civil Police—are at the state level, the responsibility to furnish statistics varies from state to state. According to Samira Bueno, Executive Director of the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety, only half of the country’s 27 states furnish credible and consistent data. While public safety policies differ from state to state and from one political moment to another, it is possible to point to national contextual factors that inform these general trends.

First, the closed militarized structure and culture of the Military Police—the uniformed, beat cop first responders—reinforces the war-like mentality of the interaction between this force and low-income communities, despite innovations in training and the introduction of pilot projects to advance community policing. Police justify the use of deadly force by transforming the victim into a criminal or by using the category “resisting arrest” as the rationale for killing. In a study of the police use of deadly force in Sao Paulo, Samira Bueno found that the category “deaths due to law enforcement action” was used to explain the 350 deaths by police in 2013 and 900 in 2014.

Second, the insularity of the police institutions reinforces the impunity and permissiveness with which the police are allowed to operate virtually without oversight. The two institutions within the justice system that formally retain the right to police oversight, the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Judiciary, are virtually absent as police overseers. The Police Ombudsman’s Office, a voluntary effort not present in all states, lacks independence and powers to investigate police killings.

Third, the ascendancy of the political right in the past few years has reinforced the reassertion of hardline public safety policies among a conservative Congress and in public opinion in general. In its 2015 Anuario, the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety noted that the notion of “a good bandit is a dead one” (bandido bom e bandido morto) is shared by approximately 50 percent of the Brazilian population. The current Congress is dominated by caucuses (bancada in Portuguese) known as the “three Bs”—bancada da bala, bancada da Biblia, and bancada do boi, translated respectively as the bullet caucus, supported by the powerful gun lobby; the Bible caucus, supported by the large Evangelical caucus, which is seeking changes in the definition of the family; and the beef caucus, supported by the agricultural land lobby. The first seeks reversals in Brazil’s gun control statute (Estatuto de Desarmamento), passed in 2003, and is supported by the second two.

In the context of the current impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Roussef, interim President Michel Temer has replaced the entire cabinet with conservative ministers. The new Justice Minister, Alexandre Moraes, when Secretary of Public Safety of the State of Sao Paulo, supported hardline policies and reversed the policy of transparency of public safety data.

Within the national context of a move toward more hardline public safety policies, what measures could achieve needed reforms? There are currently several proposals to amend the Constitution with an aim to demilitarize the police and integrate the military and civil police forces into one organization. Integration would allow these two competing police forces with a long history of institutional rivalry to share information, intelligence, and strategies for more effective crime and violence reduction. Integration would also create a single career track to allow multiple functions (first responder and investigation) and the possibility of advancement within a single police organization. Given the current political climate, it may be more realistic to see the incremental changes presently being considered in Congress—a law prohibiting police from shooting a fleeing suspect if the police are not in danger, and the removal of the category “resisting arrest” from the penal code. While these changes might have a greater chance of being implemented, there remains a great distance between formal law and actual practice. Approving these two latter changes would go a long way to reduce extrajudicial killings, but only if public safety officials in charge of state police organizations have the political will and courage to obey the laws and ensure accountability when they are broken.