Police brutality

What is behind Military Police brutality?

BdF spoke to experts on the subject seeking answers and solutions to the growing lethality of the Brazilian police

Translated by: Ítalo Piva

Brasil de Fato | São Paulo |
In the state of São Paulo, a rise in police brutality has been coupled with increased persecution of human rights monitoring groups - Agência Brasil

28 years ago on October 2nd, 1992, 111 prisoners were murdered by the São Paulo Military Police (PMSP) inside the Carandiru prison. Also on the 2nd, it will be ten months since young people were killed by the same police force, while attending a street party in the Paraisópolis neighborhood in southern São Paulo.

The dates, though distant from one another, show that killings done by the PMSP are not isolated events. On the contrary, they highlight a public safety policy that produces violence and significant lethality – a standard that is repeated among other police forces in the country.

According to data from the Brazilian Public Safety (FBSP) Forum from 2019, in 2018 alone 6.220 people were killed by civil and military security agents, which represents a 20% increase when compared to the previous year.

From the total, the deadliest police force in Brasil is from the city of Rio de Janeiro, which murdered 1.534 people. Not far behind, the PMSP, with 851 deaths attributed to them. Recent data from the Public Safety Forum shows that police killings have been constantly growing in the country since 2013, but what is behind this increase?

The concept of an enemy during the military dictatorship

Adilson Paes de Souza, a retired lieutenant-colonel of the São Paulo Military Police (PMSP) and a doctor in educational psychology and human development at the University of São Paulo, calls attention to the notion of an enemy that needs to be combated based on prejudices. While some individuals are citizens with rights, others aren’t even considered citizens..

During the military dictatorship, combating these enemies became the duty of the police, when the agents became “the scope of ample wartime action, against the enemies of the nation”. At that time, police forces began using tactics of infiltration, kidnapping, capture, forced disappearances, execution, torture, interrogation and information gathering.

For example in 1969, the resistance log was created, where all actions undertaken by security agents that resulted in deaths started being cataloged. “It’s an instrument of the state to further their extermination policies towards those deemed enemies of the State”. Nothing has changed with the implementation of the 1988 Federal Constitution. In other words, the public safety system in place is the same as it was during the dictatorship.

According to the July 2020 report commissioned by the Safety Observatory Network, people of color make up 75% of those killed by police in the country.

Dehumanizing aspiring cadets

According to the lieutenant-colonel, aspiring policemen are submitted to “rude, fowl, humiliating rites of passage based on violence”, when they enter police academies. The aim is to “deconstruct what was there before the force, in order to construct the military identity”, so that he may feel “superior and able to do whatever it takes in the name of security”.

These training models have consequences, like being prone to kill others and suicide among officers. “This suffering will reverberate in the policeman’s psyche. He will then develop defense mechanisms to try and maintain a psychological balance. Police suicides can be an expression of these defense mechanisms, just like the act of killing somebody”, explains Souza.

A matter of social class

For retired Paraná state military policeman Martel Alexandre de Colle, the objective of the force is to “breed citizens from oppressed classes in a way that they feel like they don’t belong to them, so that they may exercise control over these very social classes and allow for the elite to continue living in the utmost comfort”.

He explains that training is done in specific environments. For example, in an armed conflict situation, the scenario is always a shanty town. When, however, training is shifted to a different scenery, where higher social classes live, the policeman is taught to have a completely different posture.

Del Colle reminds us of the episode when businessman Ivan Storel humiliated military policemen in a luxury condominium in an upscale area of São Paulo. “You are trash. You little shit. You are shitty policeman that makes 1000 reais a month, I make 300 thousand. You’re a big man in the poor areas, but here you’re just a little shit”, the entrepreneur said to two policemen who were there responding to a call.

Living constantly with this sort of thing made del Colle mentally sick. “Though the officers may try to dehumanize themselves, it is very difficult for the majority of them to get to that point. Therefore, there is always conflict inside you and you end up getting sick.

Anachronistic institutional model

Robson Rodrigues is a police colonel in Rio de Janeiro, as well as a master in anthropology, doctor in social sciences and researcher at the Violence Analysis Lab at the Rio de Janeiro State University. According to him, part of the problem of police brutality is linked to anachronistic institutional models and structures in place for dealing with criminality.

It is his understanding that police forces are “drawn up” very badly, based on “very mistaken” attributions, which create an extensive policing monopoly. This gives military police forces great power, since they are responsible for everything from preventing crime to cataloging paperwork.

“These police forces were drawn up last century and yet still have the same structures. They are now tasked with dealing with ever more globalized criminal networks, ever more complex public safety issues and they need to be upgraded”, affirms Rodrigues.

Institutional policies

For Jacqueline Muniz, professor at the Public Safety School of the Fluminense Federal University, all the factors pointed to by the policemen we spoke to are mere crutches to the institutional public safety policies we have in Brazil, which make possible this expressive brutality and lethality on behalf of the police.

According to the professor, who is also the former director of the Information Analysis Department at the Justice Ministry, the answer doesn’t lie only with the way the agents are trained at the academies.

In Muniz’s view, it’s all about a structural problem that relate to the use of force, reward mechanisms, behavioral directives, in other words, the public safety policies that states implement. In this sense, the professor affirms that there is no clarity about use of force when it comes to police work in Brazil.

In fact, currently there is no legislation in the country to deal with the use of force by the Military Police for example. There exist a few documents that touch on the subject, like the Penal Code and the Military Penal code. In the latter, under article 243, the use of force is only valid when “indispensable in cases of disobedience, resistance or attempted flight”, and the use of firearms “only when absolutely necessary”.

“The question is: are police institutions treating the problem of rights violations and violence as an individual problem related to personality issues or as a structural matter, seeing as it is recurrent?”, questions Muniz.

Who creates the system?

In Muniz’s view, simply saying that there is a “culture of war” is to create a cultural determinism that supersedes all responsibility and makes excuses.

In order to change this scenario, it is not necessary to alter the Federal Constitution. On the contrary, “it is up to the Military Police and state Governors”, because they are procedural and administrative changes. “If these people aren’t making these decisions, maybe it’s because these decisions are not profitable for them. Maybe fear, violence and the violation of rights give them payouts at the ballot box.

Brasil de Fato contacted Public Safety Administrations in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Paraná, all cited in this piece. Up till the day of its publication only the São Paulo branch replied.

In a press release, the government entity reaffirmed the commitment of security forces to preserving life. "In their training, officers learn about issues like community policing, human rights and citizenship, where police behavior and situational control matters are contemplated". Lastly, they mention that the São Paulo state Public Safety Administration “through the Military Police, takes part in an academic development group, in conjunction with 8 universities, that discuss the question of police violence”.

Edited by: Rodrigo Chagas