MS Risk Blog

The Problem of Police Violence in Brazil

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On 24 May, at least 23 people were killed and 5 injured in a raid on the Vila Cruzeiro favela in Rio de Janeiro. The operation allowed police to successfully capture the leaders of the city’s largest organized crime gang, and to seize an array of vehicles and weapons, according to local officials. The deaths included a woman who was hit by a stray bullet in the exchange of gunfire between members of the Comando Vermelho and police. According to residents’ posts on social media, heavy shooting began around 4am in a wooded area next to Vila Cruzeiro. Then, according to a Reuters photographer, it started up again in the afternoon. Colonel Ivan Blaz described the incident as “a very intense confrontation.” Rio state public prosecutors said they have opened a criminal investigation into the operation, allowing police 10 days to provide further details, including who was responsible for each death and the reasons for use of lethal force. The deaths in the 24 May raid mark it as the second deadliest police operation in the city’s history, after the May 2021 raid in Jacarezinho, which left 28 people dead.

The raid is one of the latest events to highlight the problem of police violence in Brazil. In another tragic incident last month, police killed mentally ill Black man Genivaldo de Jesus Santos. Santos was stopped by federal highway police and officers released a gas grenade inside his vehicle. Police violence in Brazil has an enormous death toll. In 2020, Human Rights Watch reported that over the last 5 years, Brazilian police killed 22,000 people. These killings largely affect Black Brazilians living in low-income neighbourhoods, such as the Vila Cruzeiro favela. According to the Brazilian Forum of Public Security, police killed 6,416 people in Brazil in 2020. 80% of victims were Black.

Since the election of right-wing politicians such as President Jair Bolsonaro, the country has seen a large increase in violence and police killings. Rather than focus on community-oriented policing as Brazil has done in the past, Bolsonaro describes police as “warriors” and celebrates operations such as the one which took place on 24 May. Authorities are attempting to put in place measures to address this. On 3 February 2022, Brazil’s Supreme Court ordered Rio de Janeiro to draft a plan to curb police killings that includes concrete measures, a timeline, and a budget. The court also affirmed much of an earlier opinion by Justice Edson Fachin, that measures be put in place such as: forbidding police to use homes as bases of operations (a common practice); requiring them to have ambulances on standby during operations; and the creation of a permanent working group to monitor police work with the participation of civil society.

This need for societal participation to bring about change has been highlighted in the past by analysts as well. Beatriz Magaloni, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, commented in 2020 that there will not be a solution to the problem of police violence if society at large does not demand a change in the way the police behave. Given the public’s strong reactions to the death of Genivaldo de Jesus Santos, it looks like there is significant concern for change from the Brazilian people. Perhaps this societal demand coupled with developments in Brazil’s political landscape offers hope for improvement in the situation. Former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is currently leading in the polls ahead of October’s presidential election. His rhetoric differs significantly from Boslonaro’s regarding security. Lula said after Jacarezinho that an operation that produces two dozen deaths doesn’t qualify as public security. He also says regarding the situation in the favelas, “that is the absence of the government that offers education and jobs, the cause of a great deal of violence.” Though it is not yet clear what Lula’s specific plans are to address the problem, it seems from his comments that he may bring back more of a focus on community-oriented policing and addressing the issues which cause the favelas to become hubs of violence in the first place.