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Why Do Brazilian Police Kill?

Brazil police remove a body after a shootout Brazil police remove a body after a shootout

An average of five people were killed by police every day in Brazil last year, according to an annual security report, revealing an entrenched culture of violence within the country's security forces.

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Brazil's Forum of Public Security joined forces with US non-governmental organization (NGO) Open Society Foundations to conduct an in-depth study of police killings as part of its annual report (pdf), concluding that the country's security forces are beset by a "culture of violence."

The report found 1,890 people were killed by police in 23 Brazilian states during 2012, an average of five per day (four states did not provide any figures). The killings were broken down state by state with the vast majority -- 1,322 -- taking place in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Bahia.

Calling the number "unacceptable," the forum pointed out that in the United States, with a population 60 percent larger than Brazil and more firearms in circulation, 410 civilians were killed during the same year. It compared the number of Brazilians killed to the 89 police killed while on duty during the same period -- the equivalent of 21 civilians dying for every police officer during the course of the year.

There are three internationally accepted criteria for assessing whether police are abusing lethal force, said the study. First is the relation between the number of civilians killed by police to the number of police killed in action (as above), i.e. how much worse are civilians coming off during clashes with security forces? When the number of dead civilians to police rises above a certain proportion, it can be concluded police are killing too much. The maximum acceptable proportion according to the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is 12 civilians killed for every police officer killed. International organizations deem 10 to one the maximum acceptable ration, reported Brazilian media.

The second criteria is the proportion of civilians killed by police compared to injured by police. In theory the number injured should be far higher, said the study; if not it can be assumed the police are not just using lethal force to protect civilians, but for other purposes.

The final criteria examines the number of civilians killed by police compared to the total number of homicides. If the number killed by police accounts for a high proportion of total homicides, police are probably using excessive lethal force. Overall in Brazil this figure was not overly high -- civilians killed by police accounted for about 4 percent of the more than 50,000 total murders in 2012 (compared to a percentage of 3.6 percent over five years in the United States, according to a 2010 study cited by the Forum report). However this percentage varied wildly according to the state. In São Paulo, Brazil's most heavily populated state, around 20 percent of homicides are carried out by police, as Forum Secretary Sergio de Lima pointed out in a recent interview, reported AFP. However, in the first half of 2013, the number of police killings dropped by 64 percent after the installment of a new state security chief.

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Faced with high levels of violent crime, broken judicial institutions and a lack of funding and training, for many years elements of Brazilian security forces have applied their own brutal justice.

"Officially in Brazil there is no capital punishment," said Liz Leeds, a Brazil police expert with the Washington Office on Latin America. "But capital punishment is what's happening."

Many police officers distrust the system within which they work, so become "their own system," said Adilson Paes de Souza, who was a military police officer in Brazil for 30 years and later studied police violence. "They arrest criminals then see those criminals get released after they pay a bribe." Many then decide to take matters into their own hands.

There are many good, non-violent police officers in Brazil, said Souza, but in other units committing human rights abuses becomes a "rite of passage." Two officers interviewed by Souza who had committed extrajudicial killings told him they had felt peer pressure to commit crimes, and had used violence to gain acceptance from their colleagues and bosses.

Police killings are usually reported as having occurred as criminals resisted arrest, said the Forum, an issue which many observers, including US NGO Human Rights Watch (HRW), have drawn attention to in the past. Examining dozens of reports from the last decade of so-called "resistance killings," or killings that happened during alleged shoot-outs, HRW found that many were in reality extrajudicial killings.

"Officers involved in these killings take the corpses to hospitals to destroy crime scene evidence under the false pretext of rescuing them, and in some cases plant evidence on their victims before forensic investigators arrive," HRW said last July.

Leeds pointed out the dead have a common face. "Police arrest those aged between 15 and 24, low income men of color," she said. "When you begin to unpack the statistics, these are the people that are dying."

Souza would not go so far as to call police killings a form of social cleansing, but, he said, they are certainly "a form of social control."

The culture of violence among Brazil's police has a long history. In one famous case, Rio de Janeiro police opened fire on a group of around 60 street children in the center of the city in 1993, killing eight of them. In 2009, HRW collated official statistics to report that police in Rio and São Paulo had killed more than 11,000 people since 2003 -- one for every 28 people arrested in Rio in 2008. Police routinely used lethal force and were rarely punished, said the report.

But many Latin American nations face similar problems of high levels of violent crime, drug trafficking and a judicial system plagued by inefficiency and corruption -- but police killings are not so high, said the Forum. What makes Brazil different? Some point to the country's 1964-1985 military dictatorship, when military police patrolled the streets.

"There was a Doctrine of National Security which said the enemy must be killed, and that enemy was those who lived in a certain area of the city or who were a certain social class," said Souza. "Many important thinkers say we still have that doctrine today." Police officers often see themselves as at "war" with the drug traffickers that control the favelas. "They felt they were in a battlefield, that they must kill the enemy or be killed themselves," Souza said of his interviewees.

Secrecy and impunity is a major issue. Police brutality is a "taboo topic" for those working in Brazilian law enforcement, said the Forum; those who discuss it are "viewed with distrust." The lack of the transparency drives the killings to continue. Only 18 of 27 states have active police ombudsman offices, said Leeds, and in 16 of those there is no obligation placed on those offices to provide information on civilian deaths, meaning internal controls are weak, and impunity is high.

"In Brazil, information is power and information is not shared," she said.

"Everyone knows abuses happen but no one talks about it," said Souza.

Souza also points to a lack of training. Though all police units undergo obligatory human rights training, it is "inadequate, misses out many basic principles, it is a failure," he said. "The authorities say it is individual failures, not the failure of the system. But we have individuals failing every day, many times a day."

However, some steps are being taken to tackle the issue. New guidelines from the national Human Rights Defense Council led São Paulo's state government to forbid military police officers from removing the bodies of shootout victims from the crime scenes earlier this year. And there has been "a lot of talk" about demilitarizing the police and creating a single police hierarchy, instead of the two Civil and Military police bodies, said Leeds.

"But there is a huge amount of resistance within the police because it is an institution with a very long history," she said. "And the Congressmen and Senators that would need to pass this legislation are very sensitive to police unions, as they are large part of their voter base."

Souza said a huge paradigm shift is required. "We have lost the real meaning of authority; it is associated instead with brutality and violence," he said. "The state doesn't hear its people, it doesn't represent them, so people don't trust it and look for their own violent solutions. We need to create a new relationship between state and society."

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