Police Reform in Brazil and Mexico: What Works, What Doesn’t, and What the U.S. Can Learn

Beatriz Magaloni discusses how community-oriented policing and constitutional reform can impact violence committed by police.

Brazilian soldiers walk during a ‘Mega Operation’ conducted by the Brazilian Armed Forces, along with police, against gang members in seven of Rio’s most violent ‘favela’ communities on August 21, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Getty Images

By Alice Wenner

Brazil is one of the most violent countries in the world in terms of police violence. The police killed 6,000 Brazilians in 2019. In Rio de Janeiro alone, 1,810 people were killed by police that year, an average of 5 people per day. The overwhelming majority of the victims are Black youth from poor and segregated urban peripheries. Beatriz Magaloni, a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI), began traveling to Brazil to conduct research in 2012.

“There is no comparison to the U.S. in the level of police violence,” Magaloni told Michael McFaul, the host of the World Class Podcast and director of FSI. “But there are some parallels, especially because of the deep-rooted racism and unequal access to justice in both countries.”

When Magaloni first visited Brazil, she was intrigued by the police reform that was being introduced in Rio de Janeiro, where she has conducted most of her work. In anticipation of all eyes being on Rio during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic games, the state adopted a major police reform known as the Pacifying Police Units (UPPs), a form of community-oriented policing in an effort to abandon the militarized policing approach that had generated exorbitant levels of police violence in the city’s favelas.

The UPPs originally recruited mostly young officers who had not had any experience or training in the older, more militaristic method of policing. Magaloni found that areas that introduced a community-oriented policing approach saw a 60 percent reduction in the number of police killings between 2008 and 2013. Nonetheless, the police reform ultimately failed and police fatal shootings have escalated.

Magaloni and her team worked in collaboration with the military police to track use of deadly force by police officers in a large corporation of more than 40,000 members. Thanks in part to the efforts, 20 police officers were removed from the streets. They also experimented with equipping police officers with body-worn cameras, and found a 40 percent reduction in the number of incidences in which the police shot their guns, as well as a decrease in the number of stop-and-searches, violent encounters with residents, and aggressions toward the police from residents when the cameras were rolling. Unfortunately, the current situation in Rio de Janeiro –and in Brazil in general — is alarming, with power holders openly embracing a police-as-vigilante mentality that has encouraged police officers to “slaughter criminals,” she said.

Magaloni noted that since the election of politicians such as right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro and Wilson Witzel, the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil has seen a large increase in violence and police killings after the country’s community-oriented policing approaches were pushed to the wayside.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a solution if society at large doesn’t demand a change in the way police behave,” Magaloni said. “You are never going to solve the problem if you don’t look beyond the police. Working from inside the police is necessary, but it’s really about social acceptability. And so what is happening here in the U.S. is very encouraging.”

Magaloni, who has conducted research in Mexico on institutionalized police brutality — also known as judicial torture — found that constitutional reform and the introduction of stronger judicial checks on prosecutors and police can also have a big impact on reducing police brutality in democratic nations.

“Democracy is weak and deficient if you cannot offer protections for populations that are vulnerable,” Magaloni said. “In the U.S., it’s mostly black Americans, but especially black and brown Americans that don’t have access to fundamental rights. We need to understand better the connections between politics, accountability, and what we observe in the criminal justice system, because those things are not completely disconnected.”



Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
FSI Stanford

FSI Stanford

The Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies is Stanford’s premier research institute for international affairs. Faculty views are their own.