Police Use of Lethal Force in Rio de Janeiro: Challenges and Perspectives

Posted in: International Law

Violence has always been the ultima ratio in political action and power has always been the visible expression of rule and government… For power left to itself can achieve nothing but more power, and violence administered for power’s (and not for law’s) sake turns into a destructive principle that will not stop until there is nothing left to violate.

–Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism

Last week, Rio de Janeiro State Police conducted the deadliest police operation in its history. During the operation, carried out to comply with search and seizure and arrest warrants in the Favela do Jacarezinho, on the outskirts of the city of Rio de Janeiro, 29 people died, including one police officer. Accusations of illegal home invasions, executions, and illegal seizures have prompted a request from the spokesperson for the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Rupert Colville, that prosecutors conduct an independent and impartial investigation into the operation. He also called for a broad and inclusive discussion of the current model of policing in Brazilian slums, trapped in a “vicious circle of lethal violence.”

This operation portrays the panorama of public security in Brazil, and particularly in the State of Rio de Janeiro. In one of his first public speeches, Governor and former federal judge Wilson Witzel, removed from the office by decision of a Brazilian court on corruption and money laundering charges, told Brazilian newspapers that the police will do the right thing: will aim at the head [of suspects] and… fire! Influential Brazilian politicians embrace the idea that “violence must be met with violence” and, according to a survey conducted years ago by Data Folha Institute, approximately half of the Brazilian population agrees with the statement that “a good hoodlum is a dead hoodlum.”

Moreover, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, extrajudicial executions in Brazil are widespread. In 2020, the police of the State of Rio de Janeiro killed 1,239 people, or three people per day. That number 52% higher than the 814 deaths recorded by police officers in the State of São Paulo and 21% higher than the 1,021 deaths caused by police officers in the United States in the same period. Data also indicates that the police system is selective: Amnesty International’s 2015 report points out that 75% of the 1,275 homicide victims resulting from police intervention between 2010 and 2013 in the city of Rio de Janeiro were Black. Likewise, the 2019 Yearbook of the Brazilian Public Safety Forum states that Black people make up 75.4% of those killed by the police.

Although Rio is not among the ten most violent states in the country, it has the most lethal police. According to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of the State of Rio de Janeiro, the constant exposure of police officers to situations of armed violence is one of the main risk factors for firing a firearm. One third of the entire police force analyzed has witnessed another police officer being shot; 20% have witnessed a colleague in uniform being killed; and more than 7% of the police have been shot and wounded at least once. Regardless of the reasons for police brutality in Rio de Janeiro, the operational profile of its police delegitimizes police security institutions, affects social peace and the regular performance of public services, and does not reduce crime rates.

This situation motivated the filing in 2019 of the Claim of Non-compliance with a Fundamental (constitutional) Precept by the Brazilian Socialist Party—PSB (ADPF 635). The Claim seeks recognition and resolution of serious violations to fundamental precepts of the Constitution by the State of Rio de Janeiro through its public security policy, especially regarding the excessive and increasing lethality of police action. Among the requests enumerated in ADPF 635, the PSB asks the Supreme Court (STF) to require the State of Rio to (i) devise a plan aimed at reducing police lethality; (ii) architect a control of human rights violations by the security forces, (iii) formulate objective measures and (iv) provide for resources necessary for their implementation.

There are also numerous legally obvious requests, including the prohibition of the use by the State of Rio de Janeiro of helicopters as firing platforms; the prohibition of the dispatch of collective or generic search and seizure warrants; the prohibition of forced entry into households at night; and the preservation of all traces of crimes committed in police operations. These requests aim to ensure that Brazil (and its States) comply with national and international guidelines to which they are subject, as the requirements established by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the case Favela Nova Brasília vs. Brazil—in which Brazil was condemned not only for violating the minimum rules of use of force, but also for not providing for protocols—and by the UN “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.”

Precisely for this reason the Supreme Court granted an injunction in the ADPF (after which there was a 77% reduction in deaths due to police intervention), recognizing that the State of Rio de Janeiro fails to promote public policies to reduce police lethality. In granting the injunction, STF determined that police operations have not been carried out in communities (slums) of Rio de Janeiro during the coronavirus epidemic (COVID-19), except in absolutely exceptional circumstances. The Rapporteur Justice of the ADPF, Edson Fachin, reasoned that one of the consequences that emerges from the recognition of the international responsibility of the State is the guarantee of non-repetition [of] regrettable episodes of police abuses. The decision was issued less than one year before last week’s tragic operation in Rio.

In view of the presented panorama, there are minimum measures indispensable for the reversal of the public security framework in Brazil:

  1. Institutional measures:
    • Criteria, data, and transparency: there are no detailed parameters applicable to the State Police Forces as provided for Federal Police Forces, and it is necessary to establish institutional responsiveness mechanisms, which privilege the adequate control of police activity by members of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the Judiciary and society, imposing the adoption of a National Strategic Plan, which institutes practical and pragmatic measures;
    • Professionalization: measures should be provided for to focus on preventive and socially responsible action. In Rio de Janeiro, police training courses are insufficient, and the professionalization and management modernization of the police are necessary;
    • Resources and public recognition: police officers in the State of Rio de Janeiro operate in numerous hostile environments and have low rates of social recognition, and it is necessary to restructure the Police Force, improve salaries, and act in the social resignification of police;
    • Strengthening incentive and control mechanisms: it is necessary to improve the mechanisms of abuse repression and instill in the police the duty of responsibility for their actions
  1. Social policies: ordered urban environments endowed with public services strengthen confidence in the State, community, sense and informal control of crime. It is necessary, therefore, to improve and implement plans of “social urbanism,” reinstitutionalizing territories and modernizing the administration of police activity.

In summary, as pointed out by Renato Sérgio de Lima, Samira Bueno and Guaracy Mingardi, definitive results can only be obtained if we structurally face some sensitive subjects, such as: the distribution and articulation of competencies between the Union, states and municipalities and the creation of effective mechanisms of cooperation between them and other branches and public ministries; the reform of the police and the investigative model established by the Brazilian Constitution; police financing; and the establishment of national minimum requirements for public security institutions with regard to the training of professionals, careers, transparency and accountability, use of force and external control.

These results serve to perform the raison d’etre of the State, which is the need to ensure safety and inviolable rights to individuals (Hobbes). By assigning his political rights to the state the individual also delegates his social responsibilities to it: he asks the state […] for protection against criminals (Arendt), so a killing state misdirects its own purposes.

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