Brazil seeks to tackle police brutality with body cameras

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Rio de Janeiro (AFP) – Seeking to curb chronic police violence, Rio de Janeiro is considering starting to use body cameras for officers, a measure that has shown promising results elsewhere in Brazil but which experts say will not be a panacea.

Brazil has one of the worst problems of police violence in the world: last year more than 6,100 civilians died in police operations and 183 officers were killed, according to figures from monitoring group The Violence Monitor.

In a country where shootings involving law enforcement and heavily armed drug gangs occur regularly in favelas or slums, police are also frequently accused of abuse and indiscriminate violence.

But officers are rarely held accountable for the use of force, according to Cesar Munoz, senior Brazil researcher at Human Rights Watch.

“Whenever the police are involved in a shooting and someone dies, the standard line is, ‘We were on patrol, they attacked us, we responded and the assailants are dead,'” he said. told AFP.

“Body cameras could be a useful way to both document police actions and protect them from unfounded accusations.”

Typically about eight by six centimeters (three inches by two and a half inches), digital cameras are attached to the front of officers’ uniforms.

They have shown encouraging results in states where they are already used in Brazil, such as Sao Paulo in the southeast and Santa Catarina in the south.

According to official figures, violent incidents dropped by 87% among units using body cameras in Sao Paulo, which implemented the measure last year, along with other changes, such as the use of non-lethal weapons.

In Santa Catarina, academic research found that cameras were responsible for reducing police use of force by more than 60% since 2019.

The cameras are also credited with helping police provide more accurate accounts of incidents such as domestic violence.

“Put a puzzle together”

Rio plans to begin deploying about 8,000 cameras while patrolling areas ranging from the upmarket beach district of Copacabana to the favelas of Mare and Jacarezinho, state police said.

Jacarezinho was the scene of the bloodiest police shootout in the city’s history in May last year when a massive anti-drugs operation ended with the deaths of 27 alleged suspects and of a policeman.

Body cameras “would have helped determine what happened” in many of the deaths that day, prosecutor Andre Cardoso, the lead investigator on the case, told the G1 news site.

A resident records video with his mobile phone as an officer monitors a protest against police brutality in the Jacarezinho favela on May 6, 2022, the first anniversary of the deadliest police raid in Rio de Janeiro’s history André Borges AFP

As things stand, most murders remain unsolved. Only four police officers and two suspected drug traffickers face charges.

“When you’re looking for evidence, you’re trying to piece together a puzzle, to reconstruct the situation. With video footage, you don’t need anything else,” Cardoso said, calling the cameras “indispensable”.

The body cameras could also help hold police accountable for other charges they face in Jacarezinho, such as invading people’s homes and stealing them – as documented by a resident with a hidden camera.

But “cameras are not a panacea,” warned Munoz.

“They need to be part of a larger policy” that includes more training, psychological support for officers and genuinely independent investigations, he said.

Unanswered questions

Body cameras are already widely used in the Americas, including Canada, many parts of the United States, Mexico, and Chile.

Their success in Brazil will depend on how they are used, said Melina Risso, research director at the Igarape Institute, a public safety think tank.

“Will the camera automatically film 24 hours a day or will it have to be turned on?” Who oversees registration? How long are the images stored? What is the chain of custody? ?” she says.

In Sao Paulo, a poor quality recording with no sound is taken throughout officers’ shifts; they are responsible for activating a second, higher quality recording each time they respond to an incident.

Rio state police told AFP their cameras would automatically record, with footage being archived for around 90 days.

They said the protocols on the cameras would be adjusted as needed over time.

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