Rio de Janeiro polishes its police ahead of Olympics

As Rio de Janeiro celebrates Carnival, the city looks ahead to the bigger show of the 2016 Olympics. 

By , Correspondent

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    Maj. Eliezer de Oliveira Farias, a police trainer on weekdays and evangelical pastor on Sundays, shouts to 100 police recruits: ‘What are our objectives?’ ‘Promote peace and calm!’ they respond.
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Maj. Eliezer de Oliveira Farias, a police trainer and evangelical pastor, shouts to 100 police recruits in a muggy classroom: "What are our objectives?"

They chant back: "Reduce lethal violence! Promote peace!"

"Not our objectives?" Oliveira Farias asks next. "To get rid of narcotrafficking! To get rid of criminality!"

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Welcome to the Units of Pacifying Police (UPP) project, which these recruits will join.

The pilot program, part of a broader push for police reform, has won international praise for Rio de Janeiro as Brazil polishes its image ahead of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. It is aimed at reducing the police's reliance on violence to address Brazil's high levels of crime.

"Despite Rio not being [at] war, [the police training] had a culture of war," says Juliana Barroso, a security ministry official tasked with reforming the police academy. Ms. Barroso's proposed changes – including human rights training – will extend beyond the 3,500 officers in the UPP program to the entire 39,000 military police, the main force that patrols Brazilian streets. "I want all the police to work from the perspective of attending [to] the citizen – no longer on combating the enemy, but instead protecting society," says Barroso.

The UPPs have made important headway in establishing a 24-hour law enforcement presence and inhibiting armed drug dealers from walking freely in the streets of select favelas, or slums, that have seen years of lethal shootouts between drug traffickers and the police. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has promised to spread the model nationwide, with similar programs already taking root in two other cities.

But policing in Brazil is still far from perfect. As the size of the police force grows leading up to 2014, recruitment requirements have been relaxed. Some say low pay and long hours compromise performance. And as Rio makes gains against armed traffickers, another side of the battle – reforming violent and corrupt practices within the traditional police – is far from over.

Just 10 years ago, Rio police received bonuses for killing alleged criminals in shootouts. Rio state police admitted to killing a record 1,330 people in 2007 in these armed confrontations.

Though the bounties are gone, killings by police remain high, averaging three deaths a day since peaking in 2007. And militias formed by off-duty or former policemen are on the rise, moving into low-income areas, extorting protection money from residents, and killing those who oppose them.

Militias now control more favelas than the largest of Rio de Janeiro's three main drug-trafficking factions, according to research from the State University of Rio de Janeiro.

"Nowadays, militia is what worries me more," Rio State's security minister, Jose Mariano Beltrame, said in the Brazilian magazine Epoca.

The new focus on training is a "favorable moment" in Brazil, says Julita Lemgruber, a former police ombudswoman and a professor researching public security at Rio's Candido Mendes University.

"But it's necessary to see this training … [go] beyond theory," she says.

Ms. Lemgruber recently surveyed UPP police attitudes and found nearly 70 percent would rather work in traditional units, despite the UPP's higher pay. That alarmed Lemgruber, as it suggests UPP police may crave action-packed shootouts and are resisting becoming what she refers to as "social workers."

"What we notice is that many [people] enter into the police force with the idea that they will be on the streets combating criminals, armed up to their teeth with this idea of war," Lemgruber says.

Several recent UPP corruption cases suggest that even they haven't given up the practice of extortion associated with the rank-and-file police. In September, some 30 unit members were suspended from one UPP after media reported they were accepting bribes up to $1,140 to let drug dealers return to communities to sell.

the UPP program and push for training reforms has not resolved two major corruption-related problems – irregular schedules and low salary.

Earlier this month, police went on strike in Rio and Bahia states over wages. The murder rate doubled during the 12-day strike in the capital of Bahia, which ended with a 6.5 percent wage increase for police. Rio officers will restart strikes after carnival, police union president Fernando Bandeira said.

Often, Rio cops work one long shift – sometimes 12 hours – followed by two days off. Illegal moonlighting is common, where police provide security to businesses on their days off. Entry-level cops earn close to $670 a month – about twice the minimum wage, but a fraction of apartment rental costs in pricey Rio. That makes the job less than prestigious.

"The police are very stigmatized here," Barroso says.

Some say the police have lowered standards as they try to build up UPP forces to over 60,000 cops by the start of the Olympics. Data on police entrance exams obtained by the Monitor show that 15 percent of applicants gained entrance to the police academy in 2008 and 12 percent in 2009. That number jumped to 50 percent in 2010.

The uptick in acceptance rates is due in part to the removal of a previously required psychological assessment. Nearly half of all applicants used to fail this part of the exam, which tested aggression and response to stress, says an official in the Rio state police administration. He asked not to be named for fear of losing his job.

"Did the candidates get better? No, they made the exam easier," says the official. "A policeman is a lot more than putting on a uniform and a weapon and [going out] on the street," the official says.

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