Can Technology Help Brazil Solve Its Problem With Police Violence?

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Rio de Janeiro military police car | Image by André Gustavo Stumpf

Rio de Janeiro military police car |
Image by André Gustavo Stumpf

On March 16, 2014, as police exchanged gunfire with a group of criminals in a Rio de Janeiro favela, bullets struck Claudia da Silva Ferreira, a thirty-eight old mother of four. The police picked up the wounded woman and placed her in the trunk of their car, supposedly to take her to the hospital. However, they did not properly close the trunk, and as they drove, the woman fell out. A piece of her clothing caught on the car, and she was dragged approximately 1,000 feet while residents called out to the police to stop. The car stopped at a red light, where two policemen got out and placed her back in the trunk. The car then completed its drive to the hospital, where the woman passed away. Speaking to reporters after the incident, Ms. da Silva Ferreira’s daughter described the interaction: “They thought she was a criminal and that is why they took her away. It wasn’t to save her life… They grabbed my mother by the legs and dumped her in the boot like an animal. They didn’t even bother to check if the boot was properly closed. That is not the attitude of someone who is trying to help.”

Brazil is an important emerging world leader. The country is a member of the BRICS association, has the second largest economy in the Western Hemisphere, recently hosted the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and will be hosting the 2016 Summer Olympics. But, the country also has a serious issue with violence: 56,337 homicides occurred in Brazil in 2012. This violence is not distributed evenly: 91.6% of the homicide victims were male, 73% were black, and 54% were between the ages of 15-29. While there are intersecting issues that cause this violence, a particularly troublesome contributor is the Brazilian Police Force. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, 16% of murders result from police intervention, 3,256 cases between January 2010 and August 2015. The victims of these incidents are overwhelmingly young (75% age 15-29), black (79%), males (99.5%).

To be clear, some of the deaths are the result of proportional use of force as Brazilian Police engage with drug militias in the favelas. However, a great many of these deaths fall outside the reasonable use of force. Amnesty International investigated police killings in the favela of Acari and estimated that in 2012 nine out of ten police killings in Acari were an extrajudicial police killing. In many cases, the victims’ wounds indicate they were running away or kneeling. The victims are also often reported to have “resisted” but are found with no weapons or their bodies show evidence of being tampered with by the police. The police have institutionalized a practice of extrajudicial killing because they face almost no repercussions for such killings. Every instance of police killing is supposed to be investigated, but the police are left to investigate themselves, creating an obvious conflict of interest. In 2011, in the city of Rio de Janeiro, 220 investigations were opened into police killings. By April 2015, 183 of these investigations were “open,” and only one case resulted in an officer being charged.

As of today, the state of Brazil’s favela policing effort can be summarized as having a history of police violence towards its citizens, a history of being unable to control drug violence, and a history of empty promises to reduce both. The re-democratization of Brazil left in place the public security structure of the military dictatorship and its economic boom has left out citizens living in the favelas. As a result, the police corps that exist are dominated by a militaristic policing style and routinely kill, both on-duty and off-duty as parts of Militias or Death Squads (hit squads organized by shopkeepers or politicians). Recruits often join the police force with dreams of exercising deadly force and find a culture that openly promotes such action. Members of the police force are often corrupt, routinely collude with drug gangs in the drug trade, and require favela members to pay “taxes” in order to receive basic services. Witnesses to police violence do not come forward as they suffer retribution, which includes death, and are never offered protection. Furthermore, citizens who live in the favelas have their day-to-day life dominated by drug or police violence and feel as if poverty is criminalized.

The specific case of Ms. da Silva Ferreira is an exception in many ways. Not only was the victim a woman, but bystanders used their cell phones to record the interaction. This footage was picked up by the media and garnered strong public backlash from citizens across the country, causing officials as high as Brazil’s President to condemn the behavior of the police.  Two of the three police officers involved have since been charged with murder. The case of Ms. da Silva Ferreira also perfectly captures the current landscape of police violence in Rio de Janeiro. Favelas continue to struggle with drug gangs and with a history of failed social and economic development policies that have dramatically disenfranchised these communities. The police and the favelas have a relationship defined by violence and divided by cultural stereotypes. There is also a lack of accountability, evidence, and investigation into police killings. Yet, this case also maps the potential path forward: there is building political and social momentum for reform; the media has assembled behind reducing police killings; and new technologies hold the potential to tip the balance of power towards citizens seeking to hold police accountable.

Just this month, The Independent reported that Rio favela residents would have access to a brand new cell phone application, Nos por Nos (Us by Us). The app is a self-defense tool for people to report violence, assaults, and killings, by both police and criminals. The app allows the user to send videos, texts, record witness statements, and post pictures that are then forwarded to human rights organizations and the media. The app also allows users to upload anonymous complaints about their interactions with police officers and access advice and information about their rights. The idea for the app was developed following a survey that showed favela residents are “vigorous” users of social media and that the primary complaint in UPP areas was the resulting escalation in violence.

Technological developments like these will not solve Brazil’s issues with police violence or with drug crimes. There are a multitude of institutional problems, ranging from racism to poverty, that must be addressed—problems that an app will not solve. However, as the case of Ms. da Silva Ferreira shows, technological developments have the potential to help make real, positive progress.

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