Too many police or too few?

Over the last two weeks, we’ve talked to all kinds of police. We’ve talked to officers, both senior and junior from the Policia Militar (PM), the state-level equivalent of the French ‘gendarmerie’ or Italian ‘carabinieri’, including some who have been rebranded as ‘Policia Communitaria’; we’ve met guys from BOPE (the Rio-specific special operations group within the PM here) – and hopefully we will meet their Commander today; we’ve interviewed the Subchefe of the Policia Civil (PC), the detectives, again based at state-level; and we’ve visited the headquarters of the Guarda Municipal (GM), the relatively recently-formed city police. I haven’t talked to the firefighters, another military-state legacy, who are still an armed force, although a report from the State parliament in January recommended that they be disarmed. Back when I was in Brasilia, I also had a meeting with the Policia Federal (PF), the Brazilian ‘FBI’, another post-dictatorship development, who operate at federal level.

It is a confusing organisational landscape, and not just for me. Throughout the interviews with all the different representatives, very different perspectives emerged on what is important in policing, which force is more important and for what purpose, to what extent the current system works, and what would be the best way forward. Corruption was also something that came up time and time again, with everyone arguing that their force was improving and dealing with this, but hinting that there was still a problem with other kinds of police. There was lots of talk of ‘new generations’ of officers free from the taint of the past. But at the same time it was quite clear on the ground that people from all social classes still do not trust any of the police in general, even when they have established quite positive personal working relationships with officers in their own community.

Cesar Couto Lima, Diretor de Operacoes of the Guarda Municipal
Cesar Couto Lima, Diretor de Operacoes of the Guarda Municipal

The GM are less than twenty years old and they ‘know their place’ in the hierarchy of police: at the bottom. They are not true ‘professional police’ in the sense that they have only three months basic training, followed by some specialist extra work. They are really somewhere between police and a private security force that just happens to be employed by the city – their commanders at the top level are however, ex-PM. They do, however, have a growing field of responsibility, acting both as a kind of protective and preventative force on the ground in the city centre and as a street-level agency of the ‘eyes on the street’ form of surveillance.

Operator in the Guarda Municpal emergency control room
Operator in the Guarda Municpal emergency control room

They also act as the emergency services co-ordination, and this role will increase and be better integrated and funded in future. They are largely disarmed, though not because as many believe, the law prevents them from being armed. This is a strategic decision based on keeping a clear line between them and the PM. This is also the reason why they have a different uniform (in Rio a kind of unflattering beige) from the PM (blue). In our interview with the Director of Operations, Cesar Couto Lima, we were told that in the past, the uniforms had been the same colour but that this had been changed under the last mayor, Cesar Maia, to prevent GM officers from being shot by criminals in the mistaken belief that they were PM. They now have a very low rate of injury and death. The Dir Ops also wants to increase the numbers and in the very long term for the GM to be the be the main police force of a disarmed and less violent city.

It is a fine aspiration, however the new Mayor Eduardo Paes, has apparently suggested that the uniform is changed back to blue and that there should be more arming of the GM. The Dir Ops is utterly opposed to both, and I think he sees it as a deliberate ploy to give the impression of more PM around – the State Secretary for Security has already announced a plan to increase the numbers of PM in Rio by thousands, as we found out when we visited his office. The officers we met at the GM were generally pleasant, relaxed people, however the GM is not immune from corruption. I have heard allegations of extortion from street traders, the poor and criminals, in much the same way as gets reported of the two main forces, and indeed of death threats to officers who refuse to get involved with such practices. Any generalised or regular arming of the GM would only increase the temptation to act on the new power in an irregular way, and also, with so many weapons in the hands of relatively poorly paid and untrained officers lead to greater numbers of killings and a further channel for criminals to obtain weapons.

Ricardo Martins, the Subchefe of the Policia Civil would also like to see a demilitarisation of the police in the long-term. He argued that basically, the PM should be gradually abolished and absorbed into a purely civil police. He was also strongly in favour of more ‘intelligence-led’ and surveillance-based solutions, rather than force of arms or numbers. According to him, the expansion of the video surveillance system in the city was essential and absolutely necessary if the city was to be ready for the 2012 soccer World Cup (to be held across Brazil) and more particularly for the 2016 Olympics, for which the city is a frontrunner. All the senior officers an officials with whom we talked agreed that currently it was nowhere near ready. The GM also agreed with the expansion of CCTV, although they seemed to think that they would have a greater role in operating the systems in future, talking of plans for neighbourhood control rooms integrated with the emergency services control system. Neither the PC, nor more importantly, the Superintendente de Commando e Controle of the State, Claudio de Almeida Neto, gave any indication that this was the direction in which things were proceeding. Indeed the Superintendente was quite clear that there was a greater centralisation, co-ordination and professionalisation of video surveillance operations taking place through his office and his control room, which is in the old ‘Centro do Brasil’ railway station. The office of the Secretary of State for Security seemed not to be that interested in surveillance at all, and commented that it was very expensive, which suggests that the funds for the expansion of the video surveillance system that all expect, whoever they think will be running it, may not be quite as lavish as they believe or would want. I will write more about this later. The PC, however has the reputation of being the most corrupt of all the forces. Subchefe Martins pointed to the internal investigations branch as evidence of the effectiveness of their fight against corruption. Other interviewees were not as easily impressed!

Capitao Pricilla, Head of Santa Marta Community Police initiative
Capitao Pricilla, Head of Santa Marta Community Police initiative

So where should policing in Rio go? One way forward was obvious when we interviewed Capitao Pricilla, the current ‘star’ of the PM, who heads up the Community Policing initiative in Morro Santa Marta. Capitao Pricilla is a PR-dream: attractive, articulate, intelligent, convincing in her arguments, and clearly dedicated to her work with the community. She is everything you would hope a new generation of younger PM officers would be, and she clearly stated that she is part of a new generation. And she is popular too. As we talked with her, officers would constantly come over just to say ‘hello’ and older women in particular, would treat her like a TV celebrity. Now, of course I am wary of the way in which such charisma would make her an obvious choice to head such an operation, which is much promoted as ‘the way forward’ in the media. However there have been many ‘ways forward’ before which have come to nothing and Rio is constantly making and destroying innovative initiatives before they even have a chance to have a real effect. The Santa Marta initiative probably cannot be replicated in many favelas, like Prazeres, where there is a more intimate relationship with the ‘parallel power’ of the traffickers. But Capitao Pricilla seems like the real deal. Let’s hope that she and officers like her get the support they need and are not undermined by the violence and corrupt practices of so many of their colleagues. It’s a utopian hope perhaps, and Rio is still going to need the other far more aggressive hand of the other attempt to get around corrupt practice in the PM, the BOPE – about whom I will write more after our visit today – as much as it needs the helping hand of Community Policing initiatives for a while. It is that large and less articulate mass of PM and PC officers who have no interest in doing anything different, and the equally corrupt politicians who prevent change for their own selfish reasons, that are the main barrier to any organisational change.

Author: David

I'm David Murakami Wood. I live on Wolfe Island, in Ontario, and am Canada Research Chair (Tier II) in Surveillance Studies and an Associate Professor at Queen's University, Kingston.

4 thoughts on “Too many police or too few?”

  1. I am still waiting for the “big mother” article… I do want to collaborate in that particular one!
    It was very inspiring taking part in this research, hope you can visit us once again.

  2. Thanks Paola – none of this would have happened without you, and your help (and David’s too) was invaluable… and of course we’ll be writing quite a few things together I am sure. I hope you manage to get some funding together on a film on female favela leaders too. I had a great time working with you!

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