Brazil finally throws killer cops in jail

Rio de Janeiro funeral

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — Five young men were returning home after a night out celebrating a first paycheck when officers from Rio’s military police opened fire on their car, according to media reports. The officers sprayed the car with machine gun fire, unloading at least 50 bullets.

It was Saturday night, Nov. 28, in the city's northern district. All five in the car, ages 16 to 20, lost their lives. 

It’s unclear if the shooting victims were crime suspects or caught in a case of mistaken identity.

This is yet another upsetting chapter in a city where police officers shoot and kill hundreds of people every year. The victims were young and nonwhite — hardly a surprise, since nearly 4 out of 5 police shooting victims in Rio de Janeiro are either black or mixed race and 75 percent are under age 30, according to a recent report by Amnesty International.

What happened next, however, was unusual in the annals of police shootings in Brazil: Police leaders almost immediately arrested and jailed the four officers accused of shooting up the car. The officers were charged with homicide and abuse of process for evidence tampering. Then department leaders took the extraordinary step of firing the local commanding officer. Rio’s state governor and security chief both issued strongly worded statements condemning the officers’ actions.

While media and public attention is generally paid to police shootings in Rio, there is often much less interest in what comes next. But how the police killings are investigated and prosecuted can be just as important as the shootings themselves. And that’s what makes this case special, said Alexandre Ciconello, a human rights expert and adviser to Amnesty in Rio.

“The reaction was good, it was quick,” said Ciconello. “In other cases, we haven’t had this kind of strong reaction.”

Police shooting investigations here have traditionally been plagued by delay, obfuscation and frustration for victims’ families, said Silvia Ramos, a sociologist at the Center for Security and Citizenship Studies at Rio's Candido Mendes University. Suspected perpetrators are left patrolling the streets for years even as their cases crawl through the courts.

“I can easily remember three or four or five cases that got as much attention as this one in the last 20 years,” Ramos said. “Normally, the public prosecutors just don’t bring charges.”

There’s data to back that up.

In 2011, Rio’s civil police opened 220 investigations into alleged killings by the military police. (Rio has a complex web of law enforcement: The military police is an army unit that patrols city streets and largely poor “favela” neighborhoods, while the civil police undertake most investigations as well as patrolling.) More than 83 percent of those cases were still ongoing four years later, and only one resulted in an actual prosecution, according to Amnesty International’s “You Killed My Son” report released this year.

Ciconello said the city’s culture of impunity makes what just happened in Rio’s northern district so interesting.

Military police officers being quickly arrested by their department's own internal affairs unit and put in jail is something that just doesn’t normally happen here, Ciconello said. Rather than remaining on street patrol, they will be pushed into a streamlined investigation and prosecution process that should unfold in weeks, not years, he added.

And the media has not moved on. Local news is reporting on the evidence trickling out of the investigation. This case seems to be both active and as much in the public eye in the investigation phase as it was right after the shooting.

Experts say an attitude shift has begun in the military police, thanks partly to public pressure. With a strong echo of the United States’ #BlackLivesMatter movement, Rio de Janeiro has a growing activist campaign specifically focused on the racial aspect of killings by law enforcement.

Last Thursday, a few hundred protesters marched through Rio’s Madureira neighborhood carrying signs demanding an end to the violence against young black men in Rio. A group of young men with bullet holes drawn on their torsos pretended to be shot by police. The crowd chanted: “The genocide has to stop, or the city will be closed down.”

“This has been building for years in the black community, and it builds more and more every time there’s a shooting like this,” said 51-year-old Umberto Alves, an audiovisual engineer who was attending the protest. “This is a fight for the black population worldwide, not just for Brazil.”

More from GlobalPost: #BlackLivesMatter has gone global. And Brazil needs it — badly

Ramos, the sociologist, has been working for several years with military police conducting interviews and reviews. She said they’re aware of the antiviolence campaign and of broader frustrations among favela residents. The swift official response and cooperation after the November shooting, she added, reflects a more progressive attitude among top military police officials.

Those leaders have spent the last year engaged in efforts to reform the department from the inside by introducing new training regimes and attempting to change the militant, violent ethos of the organization, Ramos said.

Sadly, however, the high number of fatal shootings by police in 2015 — a year when the death toll actually looks like it will surpass recent annual figures — shows that those efforts have fallen short. 

“Even with these good commanders, we have to admit that small reforms are not enough for real impact and change,” Ramos said.

Col. Robson Rodrigues, a senior military police official in Rio, acknowledged the attitude shift in his department is insufficient.

“There’s been a change in posture,” Rodrigues told GlobalPost. “But it’s just been very timid steps. We need to change more.”

Rodrigues said there also needs to be reform at all levels of the Brazilian justice system. He attributed much of the delays in past police killing investigations to the civil police, which is responsible for investigating the bulk of such cases.

The rights expert Ciconello hesitated to call the latest shooting probe a “landmark” case. That will depend on how the investigation and possible resulting prosecution of the police officers play out.

Ultimately, Ciconello said, police actions will continue to be influenced by public campaigns and protests like the one last week.

“Things have been changing slowly in the last few years,” Ciconello said. “Families aren’t afraid to stand up and say, ‘This is an outrage. This is something that can’t happen.’”

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