Police brutality in Brazil is more prevalent and more violent than in the United States. In 2016, Brazilian civilian and military police forces killed 4,224 people. Compared to similar data from 2015, Brazil saw a twenty-six percent increase in police-related civilian deaths. Some killings are from a legitimate use of force, but others are extrajudicial and illegal. Reports show civilians with several bullet wounds, some at point-blank range. Brazil goes so far as to punish military police officers for speaking out on the subject; officers are fired from the police force and are sent to prison for criticizing a superior officer or a government decision. The police and government often cover up these killings, too. These extrajudicial killings are illegal under both Brazilian national and international law.
Police brutality is a problem all over the country, in both urban and rural areas. During the first two months of 2017, the police killed 182 people in favelas in Rio, which is a seventy-eight percent increase compared to the same period in 2016. Favelas are often associated with high crime and violence. Those living in favelas make up nearly twenty-four percent of Rio’s population alone. Brazil’s police have been an active and violent force in trying to end the ongoing land rights conflicts in rural areas as well. The military police often kill indigenous leaders and activists unchecked. In 2016, sixty-one people in land conflicts died violently. Just between January and October of 2017, sixty-four people in land conflicts died violently.
Brazil’s government is continuing to make this problem worse. In October 2017, Brazil’s Congress approved a bill that protects military police officers when they unlawfully kill civilians. In December, President Temer signed the bill into law. Instead of a trial in civilian courts, military police that kill civilians are now tried in military courts. This violates Brazil’s obligations under international law as military courts in Brazil do not guarantee a fair trial. Under Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “everyone shall be entitled to a fair and public hearing by a competent, independent and impartial tribunal established by law.” Permitting a military court to try military police is not a hearing by an “independent and impartial” court. In fact, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has held that independence and impartiality, as required by the ICCPR, are both clearly at risk in these situations. Specifically, “[w]here the state allows investigations to be conducted by the organs potentially implicated, [in this case, Brazil’s military,] independence and impartiality are clearly compromised.”
The government should not be protecting these violent officers. Between 2009 and 2013, the number of police homicides actually decreased, showing that it is possible to curb police brutality. To do so, the government must hold these officers accountable for their actions. Human Rights Watch recommends some steps that Brazil can take to curb the heavy police violence, which include investigating these cover ups, funding and empowering GAESP (translated from Portuguese to mean Group of Specialized Action in Public Security), and monitoring and auditing the actions of the military police. Investigating these police cover ups and repealing the newly implemented law are two imperative steps to getting to the root of this violence and addressing the problem as a whole. Further, GAESP was established to confront these killings, but it lacks funding and the proper authority to address the issue and strongly as they could. The government has the power to add more staffers, increase access to technology, and allow GAESP prosecutors the proper jurisdiction over police killings.
Finally, authorizing the already aggressive Brazilian military to act as police forces in both rural and urban areas has harmed the civilians, encouraged officers to participate in unlawful killings, and is dangerously reminiscent of Brazil’s military dictatorships. Any officer that speaks out against the unlawful killings or denounces their fellow officers is usually threatened with death. The problem has persisted for years and will likely continue to do so without the country taking any concrete steps.