The pacifiers need to be pacified.

Photographer: Dado Galdieri/Bloomberg

How Police Threaten Rio's Peace

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”
Read More.
a | A

Even in Brazil, a land calloused by crime, the death of 17-year-old Eduardo Felipe Santos Victor in a Rio de Janeiro slum was a jolt. On Sept. 29, a foot patrol from one of Rio's elite "pacification" units shot Santos, an alleged drug dealer. Then -- as captured on video -- a cop appeared to place a pistol in the prostrate teenager's hand and fire twice.

The footage aired on national news and spread on social media. Outraged residents stoned buses and protested at Santos's funeral. Rio authorities acted quickly, putting the five police officers involved in jail. But more than culling bad cops, Rio needs to rethink its police.

The incident was not just a local tragedy. It was also a blow to Rio's pacification program, a crime-fighting initiative once hailed as a model for rescuing urban badlands that has come under criticism. In a poll this year by Rio Como Vamos, a civic group, 71 percent of Rio city residents said that public safety has gotten worse. Forty-one percent called pacification a bad system; only 21 percent were hopeful the program would work.

In 2008, after years of playing whack-a-mole with bandits, Rio state officials started occupying dozens of slums where drug-driven crime had blighted neighborhoods, sapped the local economy and threatened to turn one of Latin America's fairest cities into a failure.

Over the past seven years, police have created 38 community pacification outposts. Specially trained patrols were sent to watch over about 1.5 million of greater Rio's 12.3 million residents. And it worked: Pacified areas not only saw a drop in deadly violence, but also improved property values and outperforming students.

Yet unless the authorities can pacify the pacifiers, Rio may lose the peace. Though violent police are a national scourge -- last year people were killed by on- or off-duty police at a rate of about eight per day, according to the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety -- the problem is particularly notable in Rio. After falling sharply between 2007 and 2012, the number of people killed by on-duty Rio police spiked 40 percent statewide from 2013 to 2014, and rose 18 percent from January through August of this year, compared with the same period last year.

This may be partly a symptom of pacification's success. Police academies can't turn out new recruits fast enough to keep up with the demand for new pacification units. Criminals are pushing back, and too often, police are misbehaving. "We thought the pacification police would help inspire the old corrupt and violent police to reform," said Ignacio Cano, a criminal violence scholar at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "Instead, old police ways have contaminated pacification."

The good news is that under State Security Secretary Jose Mariano Beltrame, a widely respected former federal police inspector, a police cleanup is underway. Beltrame has expelled 2,021 police for misconduct since 2007, according to his press office, and has overhauled Rio's brass.

But the new culture must reach the pavement level. One proposal being considered by Rio's Military Police would send officers who shoot too much to retraining sessions, while repeat offenders could face suspension.

Cleaning up forensics would also help. Although Rio boasts cutting edge surveillance technology and an excellent crime database, its police fail to solve about 85 percent of homicide cases. A study found that Rio state had the nation's largest backlog of unsolved homicide cases. "Since crime solving is practically nil, the police feel authorized to kill and take care not to leave witnesses," said sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, who studies violence.

Santos's death comes two years after another big police scandal in Rio, when a bricklayer detained for questioning by pacification police was allegedly tortured and then disappeared. Evidence emerged suggesting that a couple of security cameras had been switched off or broken. Twenty-five police officers face charges in the incident.

Just how much hair-trigger cops bother the country's residents is an open question. In a new survey of 84 cities, the Brazilian Forum for Public Safety found that half of Brazilians agreed that "a good criminal is a dead criminal." But when rogue cops get caught in the act, it gets harder to look the other way.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Mac Margolis at mmargolis14@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Zara Kessler at zkessler@bloomberg.net