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How did Rio’s police become known as the most violent in the world?

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Once in decline, killings by police in Rio de Janeiro are on the rise as the Olympic games approach

Are Rio de Janeiros military and civil police really the worlds most violent? That is the conclusion of separate studies released by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch earlier this year. They are accusing Rio de Janeiros police forces of routinely torturing and killing citizens especially young black men during arrest. They also say the problem is getting much worse as the Olympics approach.

The scale of Rio de Janeiros military and civil police involvement in the excessive use of force is chilling. And it is hardly a new phenomenon. In 2003 they were responsible for 1,195 civilian deaths across Rio de Janeiro state, most of them young black men. In 2007, 1,330 citizens reportedly died in the course of police action. These numbers are breathtaking when you consider that in 2015, across the whole of the US (a country with a population more than 50% larger than Brazils) an estimated 1,134 people were killed by police.

But those numbers dont tell the whole story. In fact, although the situation is dire, overall numbers of killings involving police auto-resistance deaths in the sanitised language of law enforcement have declined over the past decade. Between 2003 and 2015 they actually fellby 46% across the entire state of Rio de Janeiro, and 62% in the capital. In 2013, for example, there were just 416 civilians killed. This is not to excuse the police violence is intolerably high but to put the statistics in historical perspective.

So what explains the long-term drop in police killings? Researchers first detected sizeable improvements after 2009 in the wake of a new police strategy in Rio de Janeiro. Auto-resistance killings dropped by more than 85% in areas where the approach was introduced. The initiative consisted of newly trained pacification police units who were permanently deployed to many parts of the city, often for the first time. A key ingredient of the programmes early success was the emphasis on rewarding reductions in violent crime.

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Residents appear unconcerned during a police operation against drug traffickers in the pacified Jacarezinho slum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photograph: Felipe Dana/AP

Unfortunately, these improvements were short lived. Starting in 2014, the numbers started creeping up. In 2014 there were 584 people killed during the course of arrest; in 2015, the number rose again to 645. So far in 2016, this upward trend continues. From January to May, 322 civilians were killed as a result of police interventions in the state of Rio de Janeiro, a 13% increase over the same period last year according to the states Institute for Public Security.

So what makes Rio de Janeiros police so violent? At least one reason is the officers personal exposure to violence, a taboo subject in law enforcement circles. A 2014 Stanford-University-led survey of Rios military police officers found that many experienced high levels of violence during childhood. Roughly 18% of respondents witnessed a homicide as a child. Another 25% were victims of a violent assault at a young age and 32% said they had a friend or family member murdered. It is widely known that previous exposure to violence can reproduce aggressive behaviour.

There are several other factors driving the recent spike in police violence. For one, the many political and economic crises wracking Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in particular are contributing to a spike in crime and significant reductions in spending in public security. The states public security budget was cut by more than 30% in 2016. As a result, innovative programmes including UPP intervention have ground to a halt. Police morale has plummeted, partly because they are rarely paid on time, if at all.

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Police patrol on the Copacabana promenade in Rio de Janeiro. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA

Another key turning can be traced back to mid-2013 following the torture, disappearance and killing of a young man named Amarildo de Souza by police officers in Rocinha, the citys largest favela. The highly publicised murder triggered a Rocinha effect, similar to the so-called Ferguson effect, or viral video effect in the US. There have been a string of flagrant incidents of police violence in Rio de Janeiro over the past few years, often caught on video. As evidence of abuses circulated in social media, officers became much less proactive in high-risk neighbourhoods. Local residents also became less inclined to report crimes or ask for police help, often taking justice into their own hands instead.

There is a real danger that Rio de Janeiros police resorting to the repressive tactics of the past. Brazilian police have a martial history. Before independence in 1822, law and order duties were the preserve of state-led armies. Reforms in the late 30s led to the creation of state-led police forces, though most retained their military culture. It was not until the creation of the 1988 constitution Article 144 in particular that military and civil police were subordinated to state governors.

It is easy to forget that before democracy in 1985 the military police served as the clenched fist of the Brazilian state. During the dictatorship, military police were regularly deployed to crush opposition and undertake clandestine operations, including targeted killings, disappearances and torture. Notwithstanding some reform, the legacy endures. The risk now is that with the crisis of policing in Rio de Janeiro, even the incremental gains could be lost.

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