Brazil's Police Work With Children to Erase Violent Image
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL — 'YOU'RE going to make the Olympics; that's great," a police cadet tells young Edson Roberto de Jesus, as he rolls a series of somersaults on a gym mat in the middle of Sao Paulo's main plaza.Edson, an 11-year-old orphan who has lived in the plaza for two years, pops up from the last roll, smiling. "It's fun; they're teaching us kids, so we won't steal," he tells an observer. Cadets from Sao Paulo's military police academy played with street children on a recent Saturday as part of an experimental program to break barriers between police and communities where they work. The academy's program, now under evaluation, is just one example of a new phenomenon in Brazil. After years of human rights abuses and corruption on the part of the police, and a general lack of response from the judicial system, these institutions are now trying to change. "We want the officer to understand what a street child is, [and to know] that the child had a deficient socialization process," said Col. Hermes Bittencourt Cruz, police academy director. "Giving love to a child, he will perceive a less hostile world around him, that people are interested in him, and our work will be more efficient." For the first time since 1948, the government is acknowledging and "trying to abide by international human rights agreements," says Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, director of the University of Sao Paulo Violence Studies Nucleus, an activist research group. In an interview, Mr. Pinheiro says "amazing" things have begun to happen: The federal attorney general, Aristides Junqueira, participated in the recent launching of the Portuguese version of an Americas Watch human rights report and activists later met with top government officials in Brasilia. When Pinheiro's group writes letters to government and police about children who have been killed, answers now are forthcoming. Amnesty International is also helping design a course on citizenship rights for Sao P aulo police. Pinheiro and other activists point out that the changes they are seeing are only the beginning of a long process. So far this year, the miltary police in greater Sao Paulo have killed on average 70 people a month, or 560 through August. About 1,000 children died in Sao Paulo last year, many of them in police shootings, officials say. Police violence and corruption are especially acute in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's other large city and a drug trafficking center. But in August, the Rio de Janeiro military police announced creation of "ethics committees." The Sao Paulo chapter of the Brazilian bar association, the Ordem dos Advogados Brasileiros has also taken on the issue. "Many cases have been difficult to solve because relatives are afraid to speak out," says Mr. Fonseca, one of the OAB hearings' organizers. "The perpetrators are often police officers ... or their relatives." The new response a chronic problem comes in part because of international pressure, especially in regard to violence against street children, says Pinheiro. But, he adds, it is also a natural outcome of Brazil's return to democracy and a new Constitution that protects individual rights. "There is an understanding," Mr. Ribeiro Costa says, "that this institution has to work with society, that we have to integrate with the interest groups that represent society."