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Police violence, dictatorship legacies and risk for democratic institutions

The number of people killed as a result of police violence in Brazil grew by 18% in 2018 [4], which has not gone unnoticed by human rights entities. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has publicly  expressed concern and called for action  about increased lethality and excessive use of police force in the country.

Also in this sense, Human Rights Watch’s world report warns about the low number of prosecutions filed by District Attorneys the in cases involving police abuse – only two out of ten cases are brought forward.

What are the impacts of this increase of police violence for Brazil’s democracy? Some of the answers seems to reside at the legacy left in police institutions by the civil-military dictatorship of 1964-1985.

Institutionalized police violence: lack of effective reforms. 

The Brazilian civil-military dictatorship was marked by serious violations of human rights, and although it was not the beginning of police violence, it intensified the practice. Studies show how the period institutionalized torture, established structures and behavior models reproduced to date by the police force.

As Renan Quinalha warns, it is necessary to reflect on the authoritarian traditions and models embodied by our own Constitution and democracy, to the extent that a repressive apparatus built in the years of military rule remained after the promulgation of the 1988 Constitution.

Brazil’s transition demands responsibility for the crimes against humanity committed by public agents, reforms and purges in military and police institutions, such as those that happened in Argentina and Chile.

Among the measures are the submission to external control, greater transparency, modification of the form of entry and curricula content of military and police academies, to promote democracy and human rights, and the demilitarization of state military police. These are also recommendations of the National Truth Commission.

However, Brazil did not carry out the reforms to face the past and there are still those who insist on a so-called auto-amnesty to avoid accountability of agents involved in crimes against humanity. In addition to the disbelief in the institutions, the posture contributes to a culture of impunity, which brings the perpetuation of violent practices.

The case of Favela Nova Brasília vs. Brazil, filed at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, culminated in the recognition of international responsibility of Brazil for two killings that occurred in 1994 and 1995 in a community in Complexo do Alemão. At the time, deaths, torture and rape were practiced by the police.

In addition to recommendations for reparations to victims and publicizing the numbers of deaths in police operations, the Court also determined that “the State of Rio de Janeiro should establish goals and policies to reduce lethality and police violence, as well as conduct an impartial investigation within reasonable time.

Sadly, not much has changed since then.

In spite of the continuity of the cycle of violence, the National Truth Commission, and all human rights regulations recommending the extinction of the Military Justice, in 2017, was Law nº 13.491/2017 was enacted, which expands the competence of the military courts to prosecute members of the armed forces for crimes committed against the lives of civilians.

A suit was filed (ADI No. 5901) in the Supreme Court questioning the constitutionality of the legislation, which is inseparable from the worrying trend of militarization of public security in Latin America. Meanwhile, the law remains valid and applicable to the acts practiced during the federal intervention of Rio de Janeiro, marked by reports of police abuse and requests for carte blanche to act without the establishment of a new commission of truth. It is also worth mentioning the “anti-crime package” of Sérgio Moro, which intends to extend the hypothesis of exclusion of liability for homicides practiced by police officers in service.

In addition to legislative setbacks, there are obstacles to the investigation, prosecution and conviction of cases related to these crimes, which constitutes a denial of access to justice. An example of this is the case concerning Mothers of May, who have been struggling for more than ten years for clarification and accountability.

Should State’s reponse use the same criteria of criminals?  

Public safety is a central theme in the Brazilian political debate. However, the adoption of speeches that defend measures of extermination, criminal punitivism and violations of human dignity are detrimental to the rule of law.

Eugenio Zaffaroni points out that criminal law exists as limitation of the punitive power of the State, it is the normative force that restrains all the police agencies. According to the judge, media paranoia is used to stigmatize common delinquents and create an environment of fear and responses to crime based on revenge and violence.

The use of the police force disconnected of due process of law, constitutionally provided in our democracy, affects everyone and is often endorsed by public authorities such as the Governor of Rio de Janeiro Wilson Witzel – one of the states with highest levels of police lethality.

Jair Bolsonaro – whose openly violent speech precedes his administration – praised police action in Guararema, in São Paulo, which left 11 dead, thus manifesting: “11 thugs were killed and no innocent were injured. Good job!”. Commenting on the same operation, the State Governor, João Doria, congratulated those involved for “putting the bad guys in the cemetery”.

The simplistic and authoritarian speeches of political leaders, as well as extrajudicial executions are not restricted to the Brazilian context, but it is already considered a phenomenon of global order. As an example, in the Philippines, the escalation of violence practiced by state agents is even more serious. The country’s security forces are accused of committing a series of “extrajudicial executions” as part of the drug war policy led by President Rodrigo Duterte. According to international NGOs, this policy has killed more than 20,000 people.

It is necessary to reflect on the growth of political figures and guidelines that limit themselves to defend the use of extreme measures and remain oblivious to basic constitutional guarantees, always at the expense of lives, including the police ones, without proposing effective measures to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, initiatives aimed at restructuring the public security model by demilitarizing the police apparatus and promoting human rights within corporations are relegated to the background, as in PEC 51/2013, which has been under way for almost six years and was shelved in 2018 due to the end of the legislature.

Demilitarization proposals aim to change the current division between the ostensive military police and investigative civilian police. In article 144, § 6 of the Constitution, the military police is placed as auxiliary force of the Army. Thus, the military police are subjected to the hierarchical, organizational and training model of the Armed Forces, perpetuating a culture of “fighting the enemy” and not as guarantor of individual rights.

The demilitarization proposal seeks to place the police under civilian control. The issue is controversial, and by itself does not solve the problem, but represents a step in  public security that goes beyond the mere punitivism and extermination of marginalized groups.

The increase in police brutality only fuels the cycle of violence and is an alert to Brazilian democracy, since the State as the holder of a monopoly on the use of force must do so with attention to the dignity of the human person. Police arbitrariness, arrests, summary executions and inattention to due process are hallmarks of authoritarian regimes.

Public security is not obtained by violence or suppression of criminal guarantees, but by the attention to human rights and reforms that seriously address the legacy left in the police and military institutions by the dictatorship. Meanwhile, the agenda will serve as a platform to leverage anti-democratic politicians. Civilians and police will continue to die, umbrellas will be confused with rifles and cars shot with eighty bullets in broad daylight.

By Jessica Silveira[1], Mariana Tormin[2] e Nathalia Carvalho[3].

Read more [in portuguese]:

State violênce and the search for access to justice. Available at https://sur.conectas.org/a-violencia-de-estado-e-a-busca-pelo-acesso-a-justica/

“Only repression by the police is not a the way out”, says IPEA researcher. Available at: http://www.ipea.gov.br/portal/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=30513

Constitutional regime of public security. Availabe at: https://www12.senado.leg.br/ril/edicoes/55/219/ril_v55_n219_p155.pdf

Attorney general critiques rules that expand the competence of the military justice. Available at: https://www.conjur.com.br/2018-jun-27/pgr-critica-supremo-ampliacao-competencia-justica-militar

Phillipines, reign of terror: anti-drug policy has already led to the execution of almost 10.000 people. Available at: https://brasil.elpais.com/brasil/2017/07/03/eps/1499089617_332439.html


[1] Law Student at UFMG. FAPEMIG scholarship. Researcher at CJT/UFMG.

[2] Master’s Student at UFMG. Researcher at CJT/UFMG.

[3] Doctoral Student at UFMG. Researcher at  CJT/UFMG.

[4] Survey conducted by the G1 Violence Monitor based on official data from the 26 states and the Federal District. The Monitor of Violence is a project made in partnership by G1, The Brazilian Forum of Public Safety and the Nucleus of Studies of Violence of the University of São Paulo (NEV-USP). Available in: https://g1.globo.com/monitor-da-violencia/. 1 jun 2019.

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