RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — In the U.S., police brutality stands at the forefront of the modern social justice movement. Recent police shootings of unarmed black men fit into a global discussion on race, power and justice. By observing how race and poverty influence life in other countries, we might gain a broader understanding of our domestic problems.
Brazil is especially relevant to the discussion of police brutality. Like the U.S., Brazil’s history with race can be traced through centuries of slavery and the exploitation of the country’s poor. To understand the scope of the problem, it’s important to note that Brazil enslaved four million Africans over the course of 300 years — 10 times the number of slaves brought to America.
From the 16th to the 19th century, Brazil’s small population of landowners (mostly European immigrants or light-skinned Brazilians) monopolized the country’s economy. Over time, an insurmountable gap emerged between those who controlled land and those who did not. By the year 1800, more than half of Rio’s population was in slavery. Then in 1888, Brazil outlawed slavery, freeing millions of slaves, many of whom had no option but to settle in undeveloped slums known as favelas.
Today, the favelas house almost 25 percent of the population of Rio de Janeiro. They’re home to artists, families, migrant workers, and other Brazilians who can’t find affordable housing. Critically, they are also epicenters of gang activity and drug crime. In 2008, the city of Rio enacted a plan called “pacification”, which aimed to take back the unregulated favelas from drug lords and gang leaders.
Since then, countless innocent civilians have been caught up in the ongoing violence between police forces and gangs. Human Rights Watch estimates that one in every 23 police arrests results in a civilian death. To put matters into perspective, the same estimate for the U.S. is one in every 37,000. Part of the problem is a continued lack of accountability. Police forces are matched by organized, armed gangs and frequently use unrestricted force in their efforts to investigate crime and arrest suspects. Innocent people are stopped in the street, harassed, physically abused and even killed because their neighborhoods are havens for criminal activity.
The fact that the majority of favela residents are poor and dark-skinned makes this an issue of race as well. Thus, there is an ongoing relationship between race, poverty and police brutality. Violence and crime are not inherent in the favelas. Rather, they are systemic problems indicative of historical neglect and oppression by the state. Still, the police treatment of favela residents reinforces the notion that dark-skinned or poor Brazilians are not important in the eyes of the law.
In the United States, the growing demand for greater police accountability has been met with the implementation of body cameras. The expectation is that body cameras will help avoid conjecture and dishonesty, ensuring accountability through video evidence. The cameras protect civilians from unfair treatment, and they protect police officers who act out of self-defense.
The efficacy of body cameras in changing behaviour remains the subject of debate. Some places have seen incredible success, like Rialto, CA, where use of force incidents dropped 60 percent after officers began wearing body cameras. Other incidents call into question body camera reliability. For instance, in the arrest of Sandra Bland, the dashboard camera footage appears to skip, sparking concerns that the footage had been intentionally altered.
The use of cameras has informed several high-profile cases of police brutality in Brazil. In 2015, cell phone footage showed five officers standing over a deceased 17-year-old, placing a gun in his limp hand, and firing several shots to support their report that the victim had “died while resisting arrest”.
Brazilian think tank Igarape is leading the effort to increase police accountability with the use of cell phone body cameras. They’ve created CopCast, an app that records location, audio and video as the smartphone is attached to the officer’s uniform. Project Manager Emile Badran said in an interview that body cams enable “self-awareness and better behavior in complex situations.”
CopCast is currently in use in the favela Santa Marta, where local police think body cams can help ease tense relations with the community. Given the long history of civilian mistrust in police, easing tensions is certainly an important step in reducing violence in the favelas.
Many people, including members of Igarape, believe that body cams are just one step in a series of necessary reforms to reduce police brutality in Brazil and bring about lasting peace in the favelas. Until that happens, body cameras can level the playing field and offer the hope of justice to those who have no choice but to live there.
– Jess Levitan