Note from BW of Brazil: This is an intriguing topic and one that is not often discussed. It’s also not an easy topic to approach due to all of the complexities involved. As various reports have shown, police violence is a very serious issue in Brazil, as is violence in general. According to some reports, Brazilian police forces kill more than 5 times more people than American police. My numbers show it’s much worse as police in cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro individually kill more people than all police in the ENTIRE United States. For example, in 2018, US police forces fatally shot 992 people, while police in Rio and SP each routinely kill between 1,000-1,500 people per year.
But these numbers, as shocking as they are, are just one aspect of this issue. Another is the question of which racial group Brazilians deem as the criminal element. When we see that 75% of police murders are black, or non-white, it becomes quite clear who the primary target of police forces is. I don’t cover all of the senseless murders of the general population by the police, but just the ones I’ve covered over the last six or seven years should be enough for anyone not familiar with the issue to understand the severity of the situation. Violent police actions have a face, a race, an age range and a location. Even without the numbers, just knowing that police never invade primarily white, middle-class neighbourhoods with the attitude of “shoot first, ask questions later” tells us all we need to know. Poor, primarily black regions are a different story.
Still another angle to consider in this sordid matter are the people behind the guns within police forces that are charged with protecting the public from the element of danger, real or imagined. This is one of the most difficult factors to fully grasp. We know that Brazil’s government on a state and national level is overwhelmingly commanded by white people, specifically, white males, but a large proportion of the people who are given the responsibility to protect and serve both the government and the people are black. It’s something I notice often when I see various photos of Military Police soldiers entrusted with policing favelas and poor neighbourhoods. It’s problematic because you see many brown-skinned armed to the hilt in heavy military artillery that is used to frisk, intimidate and terrorize regions where there are mostly other people with varying degrees of brown skin.
How are you to react when you want to point the finger at the racist system but then the person who is pointing the rifle in your face looks like you or someone in your family? What runs through your mind when learn about the atrocities committed by a brutal police unit such as Rio’s BOPE (see note one) when you see, Rio’s Governor Wilson Witzel, who has given the go ahead to terrorize Rio’s favelas and to “aim at the head”, being supported by the commander of the unit, Lieutenant-Coronel Maurílio Nunes da Conceição, a black man?
Are we to have any sympathy for people who pledge to risk their lives to maintain and protect the very system that oppresses you in such an aggressive and violent manner? As I said, it’s a complex issue, because many of these people have the same backgrounds as the people they patrol and have their own challenges serving in these ranks. Providing the bodies that are placed on the front lines, these men and sometimes women are placed in situations that can also end in tragedy.
According to the Brazilian Security Yearbook 2019, 343 Civil and Military Police were killed in 2018 in Brazil, with more than half, 51.7% being black. Of course, how we interpret these numbers are also problematic because of how race is or isn’t reported in Brazil. If you believe that Brazil is 54% black, 51.7% of police murdered being black isn’t such a shocking figure. On the other hand, what if the black population is actually closer to 28-33% of the population? This would mean that black police are being killed proportionately higher than their representation in police forces. Then again, because the numbers on race in Brazil aren’t really trustworthy, what if there are actually more black police in the ranks than are actually reported? What if, because these figures aren’t very accurate, the numbers of black police being killed in the line of duty are actually higher? This is the reason why not knowing exactly how many black people there are in Brazil make all statistics on race an issue in itself.
Regardless of the numbers, we can assume that there are probably many black police officers being murdered while on the streets, and as much as many of us, myself included, look upon the police with distrust, the murder of black cops does figure into the equation of the black genocide that is in full swing in Brazil. This makes for an even more tragic situation. Black cops dying protecting a racist system that they help to enforce by policing, oppressing and often times killing other black people.
Genocide of the black population also includes MPs
Courtesy of Blog da Cidadania
It was 9:45 am on December 14, a sunny and hot Saturday in Piracicaba, a city in São Paulo state’s countryside. Military Police soldier Vinicius da Silva de Melo, 28, was making rounds in the company of a corporal in the Alvorada 1 neighborhood when the two suspected a Honda Fit driver who crossed with the vehicle. For seven years at the corporation – in which he has garnered two merit awards – Silva signaled the suspect to pull over. At the wheel of the Honda was Sérgio Gomes Samad, who accelerated in an attempt to escape for a few blocks until colliding with two other vehicles. He then got out and, with a 7.62 caliber AK-47 rifle in his hands, a Soviet weapon of war, fired at the MPs. Silva was shot in the head and died on the spot. He left two children, four and six years old.
The soldier is part of a complex and sad statistic: the high and disproportionate number of black police officers killed in the country. According to data published in the 13th Brazilian Public Security Yearbook of the Brazilian Public Security Forum, 51.7% of the 726 police officers killed between 2017 and 2018 were black, compared to 48% white and 0.3% yellow. According to the Yearbook, blacks are only 37% of the police force. But the issue is not so simple: both statistics are the result of self-declaration of color, a method that usually “whitens” the final result. Apparently they are underestimated. “There are more blacks in the public forces, and they are much more than 51% of the total fatalities,” says Alexandre Felix Campos, a police investigator in São Paulo for 20 years and a founding member of the Anti-Fascism Police Movement.
This large number of black police officers killed in the country is ignored by most of the population, and often overlooked by the progressive camp. “When we talk about the genocide of black youth, which is a fact, we need to include the death of young black police officers. They are disposable in the troops,” says Campos. According to him, the left is wrong in the way it relates to these soldiers and corporals, the base of police corps. “They place the cop as a villain, as a guard dog of the bourgeoisie. Is that what he is? In a certain way, yes. But what is being constructed when you yell ‘it’s hasn’t ended, it has to end, I want the end of the Military Police’? Shouting this makes the soldier think you want the end of his job, his livelihood. Is that what we want?” he questions. For the investigator, “this jargon silences the poor, black and peripheral who decided to be a police officer.” “What I want is a demilitarized police.”
The shot that killed little Agatha came from MPs “under heavy stress,” says the inquiry. The treatment given by the left to the police is also criticized by the members of the bullet table, one of the most active conservative groups in Congress. “The left disregards police killings, it doesn’t matter to them,” says Federal Deputy Colonel Tadeu (PSL-SP), who was famous for vandalizing an illustration in the Câmara (House) that depicted a dead young black man and a policeman walking away from the body with his gun smoking. But the congressman does not give more importance to the disproportionate number of victimized black policemen: “More black policemen die because they are the majority. The order of the left is to segment society as much as it can.”
But what explains this disparity in the number of black police officers killed? Part of the answer lies in Brazil’s structural racism and the country’s socioeconomic inequality, according to experts. “From my experience I have come to realize that the African descendant in public safety is operational. It’s not rooted in numbers in the command room, among officers,” explains Leandro Prior, National Coordinator for the Public Security department at the NGO LGBTI National Alliance. He is also a soldier of the Military Police of São Paulo, but granted an interview as Alliance coordinator. He considers himself “pardo” meaning “mixed race” or “brown”.
In other words, black policemen are mostly praças, meaning soldiers and corporates, the lowest ranks in the troop hierarchy, commonly deployed for patrols and ostensive patrols around the city. “The public contest for praças and officers, which is the method of joining the corporation, is very popular. But obviously the test for the second category is much more demanding and difficult,” says Prior. “In the end, what makes black access to officership difficult is the initial quality of public education. Most of the black police officers studied in the public system, didn’t take a preparatory course for the competition.” Even in the police unequal access to quality education is felt.
The difficulty in promoting and giving black people access to the corporation’s higher ranks makes them have to work on the front lines of public security, which leaves them more vulnerable to homicide for two reasons: “They are more subject to a violent occurrence, for example,” says Prior. In addition, most of them reside in peripheral regions with higher crime rates. If you live in a community or favela the chance of exchanging gunfire is much greater than living in Jardins”.
The differences between officers and praças are, besides operational, financial. While a 2nd lieutenant (one of the lowest ranks in the officer rank) of the São Paulo Military Police has an initial pay of 6,705 reais, a soldier receives 3,143 reais. But the issue also goes beyond money. “Structural racism in police corporations occurs in a variety of ways, primarily underestimating intellectual ability, as if the black were unable to go further without following orders. As if his role was really to be a pawn,” says Prior. Subsequently, discrimination takes on more aggressive contours: “There is a more direct form such as the well-known administrative persecution, giving bad schedules, denying requests, putting the police officer in a bad post or without structure for simple things like a bathroom, drinking water or ease in getting a meal.”
“Structural racism in police corporations occurs in many ways, primarily underestimating intellectual capacity.”
Racism within the corporation also makes itself felt early. “In the first months of police training, I realized that I ended up being scheduled more than other people in my cohort,” recalls the soldier of the Paraná Military Police Ricardo Silva, who changed his name in this report so as not to suffer retaliation. He’s 30 years old, 10 with the Military Police. “And the jokes come out, right? They call me negão, etc. It’s made in jest, but I take it very seriously,” he says. Of Silva’s six direct bosses, only one is black. “I think it’s crucial to have more black officers. The black cop in theory has a different view, and even greater empathy with the population, since most of our approaches are with black people, and we share the same social background.”
This rooting of prejudice in the corporation is so naturalized that some of Silva’s colleagues did not mind distilling racism in front of him. “I worked with a white policeman who was super racist, he openly said that he treated blacks and whites differently, approached them both differently: ‘with blacks I am tougher because I know the race,” he says. The soldier even probed some of his bosses about how to proceed with such a blatant case, but was discouraged from making any formal complaints: “The control mechanisms are very fragile, not worth reporting because you expose yourself and end up subject to reprisals.”
The report entered questioned the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro and the Secretariat of Public Security of São Paulo – states that concentrate the largest police forces in the country – on the number of black people killed in their ranks. Both simply reported the total number of police officers killed, regardless of color.
The statistics on the prevalence of black police officers among the dead in public forces dialogues with another Brazilian reality: young blacks are the biggest victims of MP actions. They are 75.4% of total fatalities during police intervention. Which leads us to the conclusion that regardless of the side of the pistol the black is on, in the target or behind it, he is the biggest victim. “It’s these black cops who kill the young man from the periphery who is riding a motorcycle or selling drugs. And it’s also they that die. The enemy that the State has constructed for him to fight every day in the name of the war on drugs is the guy he sees in the mirror,” says Campos, of the Anti-Fascist Police Movement.
With information from Blog da Cidadania
- Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE) or “Special Police Operations Battalion” or BOPE is the police tactical unit of the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro State (PMERJ) in Brazil. If you’re not familiar with the deadly tactics of the BOPE unit, check out the hugely successful film 2007 Tropa de Elite (Elite Squad), but I warn you, it’s not for the faint of heart.