Rio de Janeiro: Act Against Police Abuse

To the Rio de Janeiro Attorney General

Esteemed Attorney General,

It was a great pleasure to meet you and your team at the Ministério Público in Rio de Janeiro last month. I am sorry we were unable to accept your invitation to attend your inaugural ceremony, but hope that we will be able to continue our dialogue and build a constructive working relationship with your office.

We were impressed by your plans to create a more effective Ministério Público through the use of empirical analysis and a more systematic monitoring of public policy. We were especially encouraged by your commitment to ensuring that alleged abuses by security forces are rigorously and fairly investigated and that perpetrators are brought to justice.

As you know, Human Rights Watch has been following the security situation in Rio de Janeiro very closely for many years. We have been particularly concerned by the extraordinarily high levels of killings by police, which have more than doubled in the last three years, reaching 920 in 2016. While many of those killings are likely the result of the legitimate use of force, others are in reality extrajudicial killings, as we and other organizations have documented. The state has failed to properly investigate and prosecute these cases.

This cycle of abuse and impunity has taken an enormous toll, not only on the communities where the killings occur, but also on the police force itself, undermining their ability to do their jobs well.  We have seen with great concern the increase in police officers killed in the state in the last few years.

So long as impunity remains the norm, unlawful police killings will continue to occur in large numbers, and efforts to improve public security in Rio de Janeiro—though initiatives such as the UPPs—are likely to fail.

Responsibility for the failure to curb impunity for police abuses lies primarily with the Ministério Público. While the civil police also share much of the blame—given their failure to adequately investigate these cases—the Ministério Público has the ultimate authority to exert “external control” over the police and ensure proper investigations.  However, under your predecessors, the institution has largely failed to properly exercise this authority.

Fortunately, as we discussed in our meeting, we believe you have a mechanism at your disposal that could change this—namely the Group of Specialized Action in Public Security, or GAESP, which is responsible for investigating unlawful killings and other abuses by police (as well as abusive practices in prisons).  There are several very important benefits to having a prosecutorial unit that focuses on police killings throughout the state: the members of the unit can develop expertise in evidentiary and legal dimensions of this type of case; they can analyze patterns of abuse and recognize modi operandi; and they can identify and investigate specific police units and individual officers responsible for large numbers of potentially unlawful killings.