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The Use of Lethal Force by the Police in Rio de Janeiro and the Pacification Process


Project Manager and Research Assistant, Poverty and Governance
Senior Fellow
  • Associate Professor, Political Science
Doctoral Candidate, Political Science
Program Associate, Program on Poverty and Governance

The Military Police of the State of Rio de Janeiro (PMERJ) confront critical challenges as they attempt to reform and reduce the incidence of the use of lethal force. Police violence gained public recognition in Brazil particularly since the mass protests in June 2013. However, for the citizens of Rio’s favelas (urban slums) and the impoverished north zone of the city, police lethal force has been a long-standing reality.

The Program on Poverty and Governance has an ongoing project that investigates the use of lethal force by the police and reforms aimed at controlling violence. In 2008, the city of Rio implemented a new public security policy in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro through the creation of the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs) aimed at taking back control of regions dominated by organized crime and improving the overall security levels inside the favelas and in the city. The UPPs are part of an on-going reform process under the inspiration of proximity policing present in over 30 favelas today with 24/7 policing patrolling. Mostly young officers with no-prior experience in the PMERJ are recruited to serve in the UPPs.

The UPP constitutes an important departure from previous policies that militarized policing in the favelas and justified the excessive use of lethal police force against a sector of society in the name of the war against drugs. The levels of lethality caused by such an approach are inadmissible and it is clear that the poor have been its primary victims. The introduction of the UPPs have contributed to the most significant reduction in violence in the recent history of Rio. The reduction in violence has been accompanied by a dramatic decrease in the number of civilians who die by police action.

This graph shows the evolution in the use of lethal force by the police between 2008 and 2012 in police sub districts (Delegacias) with Pacifying Police Unit (UPP) presence compared with subdistricts without UPP presence in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro.

The Program on Poverty and Governance has established cooperation agreements with the Laboratory for the Analysis of Criminal Violence (LAV) at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and the Secretary of Public Security of Rio de Janeiro (SESEG) to conduct an on-going and multi-faceted project that aims to analyze the institutional, contextual, and individual factors leading to the use of lethal force by the PMERJ, document and explore the process of police reform in Rio de Janeiro, and understand better ways to protect the liberties and rights of poor citizens in high violence environments. 

The project – in part made possible by a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank - includes the collection and analysis of a survey to the PMERJ. The survey will collect responses from both UPP officers and regular battalions servicing the metropolitan area. We will use survey experiments to better understand: 1) cultural values associated with the use of lethal force among police officers; 2) actual use of force by police unites and police officers; 3) the influence of individual, contextual, and institutional characteristics on such behavior; and 4) training of police use of force, including use of lethal and non-lethal weapons, and its impact on police behavior.

PovGov is also collecting and geocoding data on homicides and civilian deaths by the police in order to better understand how geographic, socioeconomic, and institutional factors have shaped the use of police lethal force in recent history in Rio. Although the UPP has been shown to reduce criminal violence in the territories where it operates, the pacification process confronts several challenges. The map of the UPPs is thus far concentrated in the favelas around the Maracana stadium and near the wealthy south zone, where the city will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. It is not clear whether the UPPs will expand to other areas of the city in equal need of pacification. Sources differ, but there are believed to be over 800 favelas in Rio, accounting for 22% of the entire population in the city. Furthermore, there is evidence that organized crime has shifted operations to other areas of the city and that violence has increased in non-UPP areas, particularly in the north zone. Lastly, accounts of torture centers inside UPP police units in some Rio favelas have contributed to delegitimize the reform process among Favela residents, the police itself, and the general public.

A series of extensive and detailed qualitative interviews (including interviews with police commanders) will be implemented in different battalions within the metropolitan region of Rio, some of them in areas with the highest levels of homicides in the city. Based on the results from these initiatives, PovGov will be better suited to make public policy recommendations for the reduction in the use of lethal force by the police and to understand how policing institutions in the developing world can be transformed to better protect the liberties and rights of citizens and reduce violence.

This map shows the distribution of use of deadly force by the police from 2008 to February 2012 in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro, the Baixada Fluminense and Niteroi regions.

Besides exploring police reform and efforts to improve the police-community relationship with the UPPs, the project aims to analyze how the new security policy has impacted the complex social dynamics found in Rio, exploring some of its implications to favela residents in terms of security, local governance, the preservation and dissemination of culture, as well as prospects for economic and social development in “Pacified” territories.

The PovGov team has traveled to Rio several times during the last three years to collect interviews and meet with major players in the Pacification process such as government officials (including Secretary of Public Security Mariano Beltrame, two former UPP general commanders, and UPP unit commanders), university professors, experts in criminal violence, representatives from non-profit organizations, social entrepreneurs working in “pacified” favelas, public policymakers, community leaders, and favela residents. 

Updated: Dec 2013