Brazil: The Politics of Police Violance
by Michael Priv
Despite the turn to democracy in 1985, police killings and torture are on the rise in Brazil for two reasons: (A) the underlying social conflict between rich and poor dictates use of lethal force by police and (B) right-wing politicians, elected on pro-order platform, have blocked any effective measures to control police violence. Democracy in Brazil gives citizens the opportunity to elect leaders who boast to wield a heavy hand in dealing with the problem of crime and violence. When such candidates take office, they often institute changes in public safety policy that repress crime in ways that violate citizens’ basic rights.

This study examines police killings in 19 Brazilian states from 1994 to 2001 and finds that democracy has increased these types of human rights violations (torture, disappearance and killings) by the military and civil police. The two major police forces in each state are the military and the civil police. The military police are responsible for policing the streets and repressing crime. The civil police role is limited to criminal investigations. In 1992 São Paulo police were responsible for 1,470 civilian killings, or roughly 16% of all homicides in that state.

This study posts that the partisanship of government leaders is the key factor to determining the rate that police employ deadly force. The study’s findings show that the rate of police killings is significantly lower in Brazilian states that are led by an executive from the left or center left as opposed to the center, center-right, or right.

A key finding of these studies is that democratic governance in general has a significant impact on reducing human rights violations because for several well-documented and researched reasons.

Nothing in the researched studies explains the rise in HRVs under democracy in Brazil. But several studies offer theoretical support for such a possibility. One is the Fein’s 1995 study showing that democracy may catalyze a leftist revolution by empowering the poor. That causes the middle and upper classes to use more force. Also in the face of growing crime and violence, citizens in newer democracies may vote for candidates who promise order through tougher measures. Another reason is that civil society in newer democracies is weak due to lack of resources and leadership and less likely to stand up against abusive law enforcement. The deteriorating economic and social conditions that may have helped usher in the democracy can continue fermenting popular hostilities controlled with heightened levels of the use of force. Furthermore, state judicial system can be weak or only unevenly available to citizens, thereby allowing excessive use of force abuses.

The argument that this study makes is that the impact of democracy on respect for basic rights is indeterminate and depends on the social, political, and economic context in which it operates.

Economic factor affects the rate of HRVs. Poorer countries are associated with greater conflict between the rich and the poor (Poe and Tate 1994). Rapid rates of economic development is uneven and generally increase repression because of the tensions such growth creates (Olson 1963).

Cano and Santos (2001) employ urbanization as a key determinant of the general homicide rate in Brazilian states. However, higher levels of urbanization cause greater police violence in any case because dense urban areas attract drug-trafficking and other criminal activity that the police repress.

Chevigny (1995) views police violence as the natural product of progression from a traditional society to a more modern one. At the initial stage citizens provide their own security. Then they decide to restrict their ability to use force by adopting strict gun laws and grant greater power to police.

Pereira (2000) argues that democracy in Brazil’s only exists for the upper and middle classes but not so much for the poor masses. With limited access to the state services designed to protect their rights, the poor bear the brunt of police violence, which the elite employ to obtain order and keep peace. Such theories cannot account for the variation in police violence observed in Brazil. Other case studies of police violence in Brazil emphasize how institutional and policy factors play a significant role in reducing such violence. These factors include improved police training, higher salaries, stricter use of force guidelines, and stricter laws.

Issues of crime and public safety are major electoral issues in Brazil as declared by a Presidential candidate José Serra in his 2002 presidential campaign (Jornal do Brasil 2002).

The present analysis does not assume that concern for safety is homogeneous across the population. Instead, public safety is a partisan issue that boils down to stressing one of two major goals: greater control of crime and increased public safety. When confronted with rising crime, politicians increase police action. Concern for individual
rights weakens in such a context.

Politicians who take tough stance are labeled law and order candidates. Governor Luís Antonio Fleury of São Paulo (1990–94) said, “The fact that this year there were more deaths caused by the military police means that they are more active. The more police on the streets, the more chances of confrontations between criminals and policemen. . . . From my viewpoint, population wants police act boldly. (Quoted in Holston and Caldeira 1998)

The opposing viewpoint in politics, the individual rights position, emphasizes rooting out police corruption, retraining police officers, creating a system of recourse for civilian complaints against the police. These candidates want social and economic reforms, more funds for education, health, and employment as the means to increase public safety. This viewpoint dictates that crime will be reduced only when police consists of honest individuals acting in a professional manner, equipped with more sophisticated tools than just a handgun.

The key hypothesis in this study is that governors on the right or center-right favor the public order position and that therefore their states exhibit higher rates of police killings, while politicians on the left or center-left favor the individual rights position, and their states have lower rates of police killings. The reasoning behind this hypothesis is
found in the historical roots of contemporary conservative and liberal philosophies. Heywood (2003) notes, for example, that traditional conservative views stress that human nature is “imperfect” and that individuals are generally motivated to act based on their “fear [of] isolation and instability” (75–76). Thus, conservatives emphasize the need for maintaining social order through a rigorous application of the law, even at
the expense of some liberty. Liberal philosophy, on the other hand, posits the primacy of the individual to act as he or she sees fit. Left to themselves, individuals will behave well, and the government would do best to control the actions of individuals as little as possible (Heywood 2003, 28–30). Thus, the leftist approach to public safety policy emphasizes protecting the rights of individuals apprehended by the police and the need to reduce and punish possible excess use of force against citizens by police officers.

Notable is the fact that per poll research indicating that the acceptance of violence as a means of social control among the citizenry is stronger in underdeveloped areas in Brazil. In 2002 29.4 percent of Brazilian respondents overall indicated that it is either right or usually right for a police officer to kill a suspect after being apprehended, but the respective average for the north and northeastern regions of the country was 36.4 percent and for the remaining regions 26.0 percent. 35.9 percent of all Brazilians felt that it was okay for police to beat an apprehended suspect, but the percentage rose by 10% in the northern and northeastern poorer states and fell to 35.5 percent in the other states (PESB 2002).

This study uses five control variables:
• Number of nonpolice homicides in the state
• Illiteracy rate
• Infant mortality rate
• Level of inequality
• Population density

Increase in all these variables is expected to increase police activity and police use of force.

Government information sources are found to be inadequate and inaccurate (under-reporting police killings) but slowly improving. Additional data used in this study is obtained from newspapers, although newspapers can be biased (also under-reporting but a lot less than the government). This study uses a simple and straightforward correction to this possible bias and runs the analysis on both the raw and corrected data. A table of police and government reports is correlated in a table to illustrate the point.

The key independent variable in this study is the position of the governor on the left-right spectrum of political ideology. Since political parties in Brazil are relatively weak and incoherent, this variable is operationalized into three categories: right, center or left.

As is standard with pooled time series, heteroskedasticity across panels is assumed here. Since this dataset contains more panels than time periods, autocorrelation is less of a problem, and therefore least squares dummy variables regression is used. This consists of OLS regression with panel corrected standard errors.


1. Military police officers are responsible for five times as many homicides as civil police officers. Of course, the military police force in each state is larger, usually in a ratio of about three to one. Therefore, even for their respective
size, the military police are more likely to use deadly force than the civil police.

2. The level of police homicides varies substantially across Brazilian states. The highest percentage of all police homicides is very high in three states with percentages above 15%: Rio de Janeiro, Pará, and Bahia. Then the percentage rates drop sharply (next runner up 7.8% percent). From there the percentage declines slowly to 2.9% for Roraima.

If the high rankings of Rio de Janeiro and Bahia with respect to police homicides per one hundred thousand residents bear out the conventional wisdom that police violence
takes place primarily in large urban centers, the ranking of the two smallest states of Acre and Roraima does not confirm that notion. With respect to the rate, these two states have the second- and seventh-most violent police forces among the states considered, while Rio Grande do Sul, a very populous state with a very large capital city, has the least.
Examining the trends of police violence across years from 1994 to 2001 reveals that rate of homicides by all police has declined generally almost 9%, although the trend shows substantial fluctuations and high peaks. The rate of homicides by the civil police is much lower than that of the military police—again, more than the difference in size of the two forces would account for. Reported civil police homicides declined by nearly 45 percent from 1994 to 1997, but the trend has been upward since then.

Examining the rate of police killings using a pooled time series regression analysis we find NUMBER OF NON-POLICE HOMICIDES, INFANT MORTALITY and POPULATION DENCITY to be significant variables affecting police killings in expected manner. ILLITERACY was not found to be a significant variable. INEQUALITY lies in the opposite direction, a negative correlation.

The overall model explains roughly 70 percent of the variance in the number of police homicide victims across states and years. The substantive finding with respect to political partisanship is that the number of police homicides in a given state and year
increases by an average of 24 to 43 when the governor comes from a party of the right. The standardized (beta) coefficients show that partisanship is not as important as population density and nonpolice homicides in predicting military police homicides.

With respect to the rate of police homicides, the overall model accounts for much less of the variance among states when only the reported rates are used (R2 = .23), but does about twice as well when the estimates are used (R2 = .44). An increase of
0.1 in the rate of killing per 100,000 when the governor is of the right may not sound high, but in a state like São Paulo, this suggests an extra 33 police homicide victims every year, after controlling for the other variables. The substantive conclusion is that the police account for 1.2 percent more homicides in states that are governed by the right, controlling for the other variables.

The result indicates that lethal violence by the civil police, as opposed to military police,  is much less linked to the overall crime and violence exhibited in the state.

An analysis of total reported police killings yields results similar to the findings for the military police alone. The major difference is that the coefficient for the political variable rises; to wit, states governed by executives from the right exhibit between 31 and 51 more police homicide victims than those governed by a center-left or left party. In addition, the coefficient for the rate of police killings rises between .23 and .33 per 100,000. Again, in a large state such as São Paulo, this signifies between 76 and 100 more police homicides per year when the state is governed by the right.


This study advances our understanding of the relationship between democracy and human rights violations in several ways.

First, scholars can’t assume that human rights improve in a democracy, and be willing to examine the conditions under which democracy may also lead to more human rights violations.

Second, members of a democratic society do not necessarily share an equal interest in the deepening of democratic principles so that state institutions treat all citizens in ways that protect their individual rights no matter what.

The analysis here demonstrates that governors on the right end of the spectrum are associated with significantly greater rates of killing by the police forces. Partisanship was shown to be the main explanatory variable in predicting rates of police violence.

The analysis also clearly demonstrates that controlling or diminishing key social maladies could greatly contribute to fighting this problem. The good news here is that police violence can be reduced once politicians find political support for such a policy among the electorate.

Ultimately, however, this is bad news for those who believe in the basic principles of liberal democracy, for the protection of individual rights should not depend to such a large extent on the partisanship of the executive. The rights guaranteed by the constitution do not change with the arrival of a new governor but in reality they do.

Research on the politics of human rights protection can help us understand the extent to which achieving a more inclusive democratic governance might be possible.