Rio Police Jettison Body Armor in Makeover Before World Cup

Rio de Janeiro’s military police are getting a makeover ahead of next year’s World Cup to soften the image of a force that has been at the forefront of clashes with protesters since June.

All officers in Rio city apart from special units will receive new uniforms of blue shirts and berets to replace the light armor they typically sport, according to Roberto Alzir, deputy secretary for mega events at Rio’s public safety secretariat. Changes also include gradually taking away officers’ rifles and providing human rights training.

Protests in Latin America’s largest nation erupted ahead of the Confederations Cup soccer tournament in June, with marchers objecting to outlays for sport facilities and events while public services remain inadequate. Demonstrations have continued in Rio, which will host the World Cup final next July and the 2016 Olympic Games, and conflicts between police and marchers have drawn further criticism.

“We have to dismantle the image of Rio as a violent city, taking advantage of the big events to show the new reality due to work started in 2007,” Alzir said in an interview at his Rio office. “Changing the aesthetic is one of the actions, but it isn’t enough.” Some 8,500 policemen in the city of Rio will receive the new uniforms, Alzir said.

Officer Arrests

Rio has less need for armored officers after having ejected criminal factions and improved safety in some areas, according to Alzir. Police in the hillside slums, or favelas, where they have established permanent outposts amid a so-called pacification campaign, already wear the new uniforms.

Efforts to improve the military police’s public image took a hit in July. In Latin America’s largest slum, Rocinha, bricklayer Amarildo de Souza went missing the same night officers brought him in for questioning. Subsequent street protests prompted an investigation and resulted in charges against 25 officers for alleged involvement in torturing and killing the man, then hiding the body.

Five of the officers deny the charges, according to law firm Marcos Barros Espinola Advogados Associados. The military police declined to comment on the case.

The military police’s first-ever training manual, published last year and called “A New Era for Security,” includes a text on human rights and what constitutes torture. That instruction hasn’t yet filtered down to the streets, according to Florinda Lombardi, one of the directors of the teachers’ union, members of which on Sept. 28 were removed from the City Council by force.

’Laid Bare’

“Rio de Janeiro’s authoritarianism was laid bare when we demanded a discussion about our careers,” Lombardi said in a speech on Oct. 12. “We were treated like animals.”

The military police said in a statement it removed the people occupying the chamber after failing to reach an agreement with them. All alleged incidents of police abuse are being investigated, according to an e-mailed statement from the police’s press department.

Rio’s streets are patrolled by civil forces and military police, and a lack of coordination between them has reignited calls for unification. Both are controlled by the state public safety secretariat that since 2009 has provided 223 million reais ($101 million) in bonuses to promote performance and coordination, according to the secretariat’s press office.

Rio’s Streets

The secretariat has begun removing long firearms from Rio’s streets, starting in neighborhoods near the Maracana stadium that will host World Cup matches, and the Southern Zone that includes beach-side Ipanema and Copacabana. It plans to boost the number of military police in the state to 55,000 from the current 44,000 in time for the Olympic games, Alzir said.

“Officers’ orientation, training, vehicles, individual protection equipment, communication, all of that is being reviewed in this process,” he said. “If I look at the current reality, a lot was done and lot needs to be done.”

Since Brazil’s 1985 return to democracy from a dictatorship, criticism of the military police has helped provoke innovations including ombudsman units and internal affairs offices. Still a working group of the United Nations’ Human Rights Council last year recommended Brazil abolish the force in order to reduce the number of extrajudicial executions.

Jerome Valcke, general secretary of soccer’s governing body FIFA, said earlier this month his organization is confident the authorities can handle World Cup security.

“What has happened at the Confederations Cup and the way the authorities reacted was definitely very good and gave a lot of confidence to all the teams, commercial partners and all of us on the capacity to be able to control the situation,” Valcke told reporters in Rio.

For Brazil’s June 30 Confederations Cup final game with Spain around 11,000 security officials, including armed police on horseback and motorcycles and a dozen truckloads of soldiers, were posted around Maracana. Some clashed with protesters, firing tear gas that wafted into the stadium, stinging the eyes of some spectators.

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