Bizarre happenings in Rio de Janeiro

My collaborator, Paola Barreto Leblanc writes to me “Something really bizarre happened this week. In a public street in Rio’s center CCTVs from some buildings and a Bank – private circuits – caught a criminal action led by police officers [Policia Militar – PM, or Military Police, in fact]. Instead of helping a victim of an attack they rob the robbers!” The news story is available on youtube:

The thing that adds an extra layer of particularly bleak humour to this nasty event is that the name of the PM officer involved is capitão Bizarro (Captain Bizarre)… however, the really sad fact about the whole incident is that the victim was prominent social justice activist and founder of the internationally-renowned favela music group AfroReggae, Evandro João da Silva. He did a lot more good for the city and for the improvement of the lives of the urban poor than any gang-members or police officers ever did and he will be sorely missed. The PM chief, Mário Sérgio Duarte, who we interviewed back in April, is once again in the papers and on TV, apologizing. I noted at the time that Colonel Duarte seemed ‘profoundly indifferent’ to CCTV – I wonder if he will change his mind now and in what direction…

As Paola also writes to me, the nexus of CCTV in Rio is an intensely confusing one, mixing drug-gangs, corrupt police, the media, who like anywhere else seem to be living off the images from CCTV cameras without much in the way of respect for the victims. We are now starting to work together on a paper on these developments.

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.

At the Instituto de Segurança Pública

Paola and I had a very productive interview with Colonel Mario Sergio de Brito Duarte, the Director President of the Institute for Public Security (ISP) in Rio de Janeiro. The ISP is a state-level organisation with multiple functions including research on public security and the compilation of crime statistics; professional development for the police services (and also more broadly to encourage greater cooperation and coordination between military and civil police); and community involvement and participation in the development of security policy. The Colonel gave us an hour and a half of his time to explain his view on a wide range of issues around crime, security, the problems of the favelas, and the potential for surveillance, social interventions and policing in solving these problems.

As with many senior police (and military) officers with whom I have talked over the years, the Colonel is an educated, thoughtful man who has strong views based in his experiences as a front-line officer with the Policia Militar in Rio (including some years in BOPE, the special operations section) – as detailed in his book, Incursionanda no Inferno (Incursions into the Inferno). Despite how the title may sound, he was far from being gung-ho or authoritarian in his views, emphasising throughout, as with almost everyone I have talked to, that socio-economic solutions will be the only long-term guarantee of public security in Rio. And he certainly had no sympathy for the illegal actions of militias, despite understanding why they emerged and continued to be supported by some sections of the community.

However, it was also clear to him that current policies like Mayor Eduardo Paes’ ‘choque de ordem’ strategy which involves demolitions of illegally-built houses in the favelas, was absolutely necessary as well. He spent some time outlining his view of the history of how drug gangs infiltrated and gained control of many favelas, an in particular the importance of their obtaining high quality small arms – though he was vague on exactly where these arms came from – I have, of course, heard allegations from other interviewees that corrupt soldiers and policemen were one common source of such weapons.

From the point of view of surveillance studies, it was notable how profoundly indifferent the Colonel appeared to be towards he growth of surveillance, and in particular CCTV cameras. He argued that they might be a useful supplement to real policing, but he certainly did not appear to favour a UK-style ‘surveillance society’ – of which, at least in Rio, there seems little sign as yet. He was similarly indifferent towards other central state social interventions like the Programa Bolsa Familia (PBF), and initiatives like ID cards – of course they might help in some way, but he certainly made no attempt to ague, as the UK government has done, that such technology will make a big difference to fighting crime and terrorism (indeed it was interesting that ‘terrorism’ was not mentioned at all – I guess that, when you have to deal with the constant reality of poverty, drugs and fighting between police and gangs, there is no need to conjure phantasms of terror). Even so, the Colonel recognised that the media in Rio did create fantasies of fear to shock the middle classes, and that this sensationalism did harm real efforts to create safer communities.

There was a lot more… but that will have to wait until I have had the whole interview transcribed and translated. In the meantime, my thanks to Colonel Mario Sergio Duarte and to the very nice and helpful ISP researcher Vanessa Campagnac, one of the authors of the analysis of the Rio de Janeiro Victimisation Survey, who talked to us about more technical issues around crime statistics.