Black youth

How civil society in Rio de Janeiro reduced police lethality in favelas

Disputes over the Brazilian policing model: Citizenship and the police mandate

Illustrations by Andréa Tolaini via femiñetas
Contributors
Felipe da Silva Freitas

Summary

In 2020, civil society members achieved a 70% drop in police killings by initiating ADPF 635 in the Rio de Janeiro Congress. They argued in this constitutional action that the police interventions were racially and socio-economically motivated and obtained legal safeguards. Concrete experience in strategic litigation in human rights shows how disputes around the Brazilian police model weigh into public safety. This article explores the possibilities and limits of citizen control of law enforcement, and the necessary legal instruments to reach it.

A judicial halt to targeted police abuse

On 5 July 2020, Brazilian Federal Supreme Court (STF) Justice Edson Fachin ordered the military police of the state of Rio de Janeiro to stop operations in Rio communities during the pandemic except in “absolutely exceptional cases.”1Teixeira, Matheus. “Fachin restringe operações de polícia do Rio durante Covid-19” (“Fachin restricts police operations in Rio during Covid-19”). Folha, 5 June 2020. Available at: https://www1.folha.uol.com.br/cotidiano/2020/06/fachin-restringe-operacoes-de-policia-do-rio-durante-covid-19.shtml. This historic ruling set limits on proactive policing and raised questions about the boundaries of police action, especially in areas with poor Black majorities.

The ruling established that these “exceptional” police operations must be justified in writing with immediate notice to the Public Prosecutor’s Office, establishing civil and criminal liability for those failing to do so. It also states that the utmost care must be exercised so as not to jeopardize the population and that the provision of public health services and humanitarian aid must be assured.

The measure was the result of civil society organizations and the Brazilian Socialist Party presenting a claim of unconstitutionality to the Supreme Court on the policing of the favelas. In the claim, known as ADPF 635,2An ADPF (Claim of Non-Compliance with a Fundamental Precept) is a constitutional action (lawsuit) that aims to prevent or repair violations of a fundamental precept resulting from the actions of public authorities. It is a type of lawsuit that is used to analyse violations of founding legal values of the state and of the Constitution. or the Favela ADPF, multiple organizations demanded a stop to police abuse systematically targeting certain people in the State of Rio and measures preventing further harms.

This action was also historic because, even though it was signed by a political party (a requirement of Brazilian law for this type of action), ADPF 635 was formulated through a long debate, with dozens of public organizations involved in the mobilization of favela groups, representatives of the Black movement and state violence victims’ organizations. The discussions that led to ADPF 635 reflected an important and wide range of political actors in the struggle for human rights and questioned a large part of the political and legal foundation of the police in Brazil.

Justice Fachin’s ruling was endorsed by the other seven justices of the Court and the prohibition on operations in Rio favelas was maintained during the pandemic.“3STF confirma restrição a operações policiais em comunidades do RJ durante pandemia” (“STF confirms restriction on police operations in Rio communities during pandemic”). Available at: https://portal.stf.jus.br/noticias/verNoticiaDetalhe.asp?idConteudo=448994&ori=1. In practice, the ruling recognized that police action in Rio communities represented a threat, rather than a safeguard, to the rights of the population, and set an important legal precedent by challenging the confrontational model of police action and, at the same time, reasserted the need for firm measures to contain police activity, especially in poor Black communities.

Illustrations by Andréa Tolaini via femiñetas
Illustrations by Andréa Tolaini via femiñetas

In the first months of being in force, the measure showed excellent results in terms of reducing the number of deaths resulting from police intervention (“autos de resistência,” or acts of self-defence), with the number of homicides and thefts decreasing. Clearly, the restriction on police operations did not lead to more insecurity (in terms of more criminal acts) for the population as a whole; on the contrary, there was a crime reduction.

According to data from the study Police Operations and Criminal Acts: For a qualified public debate by the Grupo de Estudos dos Novos Ilegalismos (Study Group of New Illegalities) of the Universidade Federal Fluminense, after the STF measure was passed, the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro registered a fall of 70% in the number of deaths resulting from police interventions, as well as significant reductions in crimes against life (48%) and property (40%).4Grupo de Estudos dos Novos Ilegalismos da Universidade Federal Fluminense.

After the STF measure was passed, the metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro registered a fall of 70% in the number of deaths resulting from police interventions, as well as significant reductions in crimes against life (48%) and property (40%).

This dramatic drop in cases of lethal police violence following the restriction on police operations challenged the authorities to think about why it is so hard to guarantee security for our communities. Why is it so complicated to break the cycle of death that is so deeply rooted in the heart of our social experience? Despite the evident positive effects, the legal ruling to limit police operations in Rio de Janeiro was widely opposed by sectors of public security and by the high authorities of the executive branch, who claimed that the measure had limited the state’s fight against crime and that Rio was becoming a place of impunity and insecurity, all in complete contradiction with what the data showed and what sector specialists said.

To give one example, in July 2022 Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro criticized the STF, alleging – without any factual basis or statistics to back up his claims – that the suspension of police operations in Rio de Janeiro represented a liberation for criminal practices. Bolsonaro, challenging the judiciary’s measures, stated: “Rio de Janeiro today has an exclusion zone where the military police cannot act due to the Federal Supreme Court’s ruling, and crime is growing in this area and the military police have difficulties in combatting those delinquents.”5https://www.em.com.br/app/noticia/politica/2022/07/21/interna_politica,1381834/bolsonaro-culpa-stf-por-mortes-em-operacao-no-complexo-do-alemao-no-rio.shtml

Despite the evident positive effects, the legal ruling to limit police operations in Rio de Janeiro was widely opposed by sectors of public security and by the high authorities of the executive branch, who claimed that the measure had limited the state’s fight against crime and that Rio was becoming a place of impunity and insecurity, all in complete contradiction with what the data showed and what sector specialists said.

Why was it necessary for the Supreme Court to rule on the suspension of police operations in Rio de Janeiro?

The years 2018 and 2019 were particularly disturbing for the inhabitants of the favelas of the state of Rio de Janeiro. In this period, police violence cases piled up as confrontational operations led by then-governor Wilson Witzel worsened. Many bodies – including children – were counted, killed by ammunition fired by the police. In just the first nine months of 2019 in Rio de Janeiro, 1,402 civilian deaths were recorded in police patrol operations.6World Report 2020: Brazil | Human Rights Watch (hrw.org): https://www.hrw.org/world-report/2020/country-chapters/brazil This represents an average of five deaths per day, a considerably higher number than that of some countries that are in a state of declared war.

The total lack of control by the Rio police, and its reflection in the methods of police forces throughout the country, led to a major conversation between Black movements and human rights bodies. State violence and police brutality during this period reached sky-high levels, causing fear and insecurity in communities.

In the APDF, civil society organizations questioned two state decrees that regulate Rio de Janeiro’s security policy and demanded the recognition of serious human rights violations committed by police forces in favelas, as well as the implementation of concrete measures to reduce lethality and guarantee justice for victims.

Social movements requested the judiciary, in recognizing the systematic violation of human rights by the police, to establish practical measures to contain the use of police force and broaden controls and checks on the actions of public security professionals.

A request that stood out was one for the implementation and monitoring of a plan to reduce police lethality through a broad collaboration between civil society and public institutions committed to promoting human rights. Organizations also made a plea for: not using helicopters as shooting platforms; greater rigour in issuing search and arrest warrants to prevent random and illegal investigations; preserving crime scenes in the case of crimes committed during police operations; and accurate documentation to prevent the undue removal of victims’ bodies or the alteration of crime scenes under any pretext.

Furthermore, the action also aimed at ensuring absolute exceptionality in police operations in perimeters where schools, daycare centers, hospitals and health centers are located, and the establishment of protocols for restricted action in permitted cases; suspension of the secrecy of all police action protocols and determining the obligation to prepare, store and make available detailed reports on each police operation and installation of cameras and GPS equipment in police officers’ vehicles and uniforms.

The crux of the argument was that the policing model based on patrols and operations (generally large-scale) and police’s proactive and bellicose presence in communities results in more, not less, violence and insecurity. Given this context, it was not possible to accept the inertial reproduction of violence by security forces, nor naturalizing a model based exclusively on the use of force and unclear criteria for personal searches, home searches and arrests in flagrant (type of arrests for investigation) by the police.

The action also sought to challenge the excessive use of force by police authorities in everyday life in urban spaces and the excessive use of the police themselves – unduly treated as an inevitable mode of managing public space and social life. Furthermore, it questioned the quasi-sacred and immutable belief that police operations – especially those carried out in the early morning with the use of armoured vehicles and helicopters – were essential for preserving public order and maintaining social life. This was a false narrative: the police were not and are not the best option for mediating problems and resolving social conflicts; rather, they often aggravate them.

Why are fewer police operations necessary for greater security?

In Brazil, the police have a dysfunctional, excessively violent profile and culture.
Police forces still bear the mark of a very authoritarian society characterized by racism and a slave-owning past that still produces serious effects on the political structure and social life of the country. The problem endures with the model of policing and public security developed in 1988–in the transition from the military regime to democracy–which maintained the ties between the police and the armed forces, preserved the separation between civil and military police and did not remove the marks left by the long period of dictatorship. Brazilian police have problems with their structure, education and culture that result in constant and repeated cases of corruption, power abuses and State violence. 

Police forces still bear the mark of a very authoritarian society characterized by racism and a slave-owning past that still produces serious effects on the political structure and social life of the country.

The clearest illustration of this model is the centrality of operations in the police’s everyday actions and overlapping functions of the two police types that exist in Brazil, civil police and military police. According to Brazilian legislation, investigation functions are the preserve of the civil police and patrolling the streets is the job of the military police, as seen in the proactive presence of patrols in cities. This separation, outlined in the constitution, causes additional problems with the repetition of activities, invasion of assignments and, more seriously, frequent cases of abuses and systematic illegality. 

The problem is most clearly illustrated in the police approach to drug trafficking – the greatest cause of imprisonment in Brazil in recent years. Drug trafficking in the country, domestic or international, is done by large illegal economic groups (factions) that use the labor of young Black men, mostly very poor, who sell the drugs in small quantities and are led into the prison system. These arrests are carried out abusively by military police officers who, in principle, should not “investigate crimes” and often in heavily armed raids that result in exchanges of gunfire and that produce fear and insecurity in the communities.

The model is unable to contain violence, reduce the sale and consumption of drugs or broaden the State’s control of crimes committed in the communities. These are practices reproduced through inertia by the police and the justice system that have the power to aggravate the problem of violence without touching the real challenges associated with drug consumption and trafficking, namely public health, social assistance, and public control of the markets. 

But why is it solely the police who are the basis of all state action in which such a complex political and social problem is at stake? How is it possible to sustain practices as ineffective as these, given the excessive costs of prohibition and the build-up of weapons?

But why is it solely the police who are the basis of all state action in which such a complex political and social problem is at stake?

It is the proactive policing model, based on aggressive raids and the prohibition of other modalities of state intervention, that sets the basis for this paralysis, preventing innovations and obstructing the construction of alternatives. 

Illustrations by Andréa Tolaini via femiñetas
Illustrations by Andréa Tolaini via femiñetas

How can the control of police operations help in the construction of security alternatives?

Moving away from the proactive policing model is vital for constructing alternatives in the field of public security. The suspension of operations in the communities of Rio de Janeiro shows that the measure can be successful in terms of controlling lethal violence in the state. It encourages the construction of alternatives and an end to authoritarian models of political administration.

It is important to note that not everything about the experience was a success, as only some of the requests made by civil society were actioned. The court only ruled that operations should be restricted to exceptional cases and that it was necessary, in such cases, to notify the Public Prosecutor’s Office. The installation of cameras on police uniforms, the preparation and detailed disclosure of an operation plan and other requests were initially not accepted. In addition, a year after the decision, the military police command began failing to comply with the court order by starting to carry out operations without prior notification and justification of necessity.

Despite the failure of the military police command to comply with the ruling, it is worth stating that the experience of suspending police operations in Rio de Janeiro was an important example of how it is possible to control the police and, thus, create conditions for the gestation of other modes of conflict management. The democratic agenda for police management revolves around a plural and public review of the police mandate and the use of force by the state. Until where will we socially allow the state to move forward and how do we plan to oversee police and policing? 

Stopping operations and setting clear limits on police actions to reduce lethality, as required by ADPF 635, is evidently not enough to redefine the police mandate nor to create alternatives to its excessive actions in the communities. It will require promoting the empowerment of underprivileged communities, controlling illegal acts practised by public and private agents, and generating inclusion through the fight against inequality and the promotion of social security. It is a fundamental first step towards building a world with less policing and less violence.

Endnotes

Contributors

Felipe da Silva Freitas holds a doctorate in law from the Universidade de Brasília and is a professor of the Post-Graduate Law Programme of the Instituto Brasileiro de Ensino, Desenvolvimento e Pesquisa (Brazilian Institute of Teaching, Development and Research), coordinator of Rede Liberdade programmes and director of Plataforma Justa. He is currently secretary of justice and human rights in the state of Bahia, Brazil.

Illustrations by Andréa Tolaini via femiñetas

Andréa Tolaini is a visual artist, muralist and illustrator from São Paulo, Brazil. In her creations, nature and the universe are used as metaphors for emotions, often exposing pains, strengths, passions and social anxieties, particularly those related to femininity. In her art, arms become wings, veins become streams, bodies are seeds and flowers bloom from scars. Just like nature, Andréa’s work overflows with a diversity of forms, bodies and emotions, challenging our perception to see beauty beyond the standards and bodily idealizations imposed by the dominant culture. Hers is a strong yet sensitive art, guttural yet poetic. It reclaims with pride our place as animals. Her work fearlessly exposes the most organic part of our animal nature.

Andréa has illustrated for Marie Claire Brasil magazine, the journal Femiñetas in Spain, Sesc Santo André, the Brazilian National Articulation for the Rights of Nature and others. She has created cover art for various projects by writers and musicians such as Déa Trancoso, Rosane Pereira, Indy Naíse (all in Brazil), Inês Loubet (Portugal) and Something Sleeps (UK). She has painted murals for Sesc, Sinpeem (Union of Educational Professionals in Municipal Teaching of São Paulo), the Collective for Women’s Health and Sexuality, Mídia NINJA, Jaguar Parade, Chácara do Jockey Cultural polo club and the São Paulo City Department of Culture, among others.


femiñetas: feminism in vignettes. Femiñetas is an illustrated and transoceanic collective and media. It comprises some 300 illustrators and writers from different parts of the world who form a story-telling community in the language of comics.

Flor Coll is the coordinator and founder of @feminetas. She is a journalist and Social Communication graduate from Universidad Nacional de Rosario (Argentina) and holds a Master’s in Gender and Communication from the Autonomous University of Barcelona (Spain). After working for more than 15 years as a journalist in Argentinian radio, TV and print media, she currently carries out gender and sexuality campaigns for the NGO Sexus and teaches at the Master’s in Communication and Gender at the Barcelona Open University in Spain (UAB). She co-created Chamana Comunicación, a consultancy firm based in Barcelona where she is the director of communication and capacity building.

 

femiñetas

Contact the Artist

Contact the Artist