The police in the United States are killing civilians at an alarming rate, and the problem of police abuse is well reported. In Brazil — the largest Black country outside of the African continent, and second only to Nigeria in its population of African people — there is an epidemic of police violence. The extrajudicial serial killing of people at the hands of law enforcement in this South American nation is a human rights crisis.
In 2016, Brazilian police killed 4,224 people, according to data recently released by the Brazilian Yearbook of Public Security. That figure represents a 26 percent increase from the prior year. In the U.S., law enforcement took 1,093 lives in 2016, and 1,146 in 2015, according to The Counted, a database of police killings compiled by The Guardian. In one five-year time period, between 2008 and 2013, Brazilian police killed 11,000 people, as many as U.S. law enforcement killed over the course of 30 years.
Even by American standards, Brazil’s homicide statistics are staggering and sobering. While 17,250 homicides took place in the United States last year, according to the FBI, 61,600 people were killed in Brazil in the same year. Brazilian law enforcement contributes more than its share of the killing. More than one-fifth of the police-related homicides in Brazil take place in Rio De Janeiro, where police are reportedly out of control, and community policing is eschewed in favor of military action against gangs and an uncontained war on drugs in the low-income communities known as favelas, as Huffington Post reported. Police killed 925 people in Rio last year, a 43 percent uptick over 2015. Law enforcement accounts for one-fifth of all homicides in the city. Over the past decade, Rio police have killed over 8,000 people, 75 percent of them Black.
In the months before the Olympic games in Rio, the number of people killed increased 103 percent, according to a report on Brazil that Amnesty International released this year. During the Olympics, police admitted killing at least 12 people and being involved in 217 shootings in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Rio police are particularly trigger-happy, in a country where law enforcement is shockingly violent.
“Police continued to use unnecessary and excessive force, particularly in the context of protests. Young people and black men, mainly those living in favelas and other marginalized communities, were disproportionately targeted with violence by law enforcement officials,” Amnesty International wrote of law enforcement in Brazil. The human rights group shed light on the criminal activity of police officers, the extrajudicial killings, excessive force, torture and “enforced disappearances,” and the detention of military police officers who were implicated in shootout investigations.
After visiting Brazil, the Amnesty report noted, the UN Special Rapporteur on minority issues recommended to the UN Human Rights Council that the Brazilian military police be abolished. She also recommended banning the practice of classifying all police killings as “resistance by death,” which automatically presumes the officer acted in self-defense and therefore precludes any investigation. Most killings go unpunished, whether involving police officers in the streets, or guards in the overcrowded and prisons. “In September a court of appeals declared null a trial and sentences against 74 police officers for a massacre in Carandiru prison in 1992; 111 men had been killed by the police in the massacre,” Amnesty added.
In its own 2017 report, Human Rights Watch said that police torture and extrajudicial killings help perpetuate a cycle of violence in Brazil. Specifically, the organization noted that police violence places the lives of officers in danger and undermines public security, making it less likely that gang members will surrender, more likely they will kill the police when given the chance, and less likely that the community will report crimes or act as witnesses. “The community’s cooperation with the police is key to reducing the high levels of crime in Brazil,” said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director of Human Rights Watch. “Turning a blind eye to police abuse not only denies justice to victims’ families, it antagonizes communities and puts the police officers who patrol them at risk.”
The data support Canineu’s argument. As of July, when families of police demonstrated in Rio after the death of a police officer in a shantytown, 91 officers were killed in Rio state this year. Relatives of fallen officers complain the police lack the equipment and resources they need to fight crime.
Police violence has been a longstanding reality in Brazil, with its political and economic turmoil, a high tolerance for excessive force among the department hierarchy, and an aggressively trained military police force. “You have a deeply distressed and exasperated population who see the police as an enemy, not as a servant to the public good. This creates a very antagonistic relationship,” said Robert Muggah, research director of the Igarapé Institute, a think tank based in Rio, told The Guardian. “It’s worsened by the routine egregious use of force caught on film,” he added.
The military police in Brazil has racist origins, stemming from 1808 to prevent slave rebellions when the Portuguese royal family left Europe to escape from Napoleon Bonaparte and relocated its court to Brazil. As far as the police are concerned, in majority-Black Brazil, as elsewhere, old habits die hard.