Thursday, January 10, 2008

Safer, Smarter Police Tactics in São Paulo

As this article points out, while 11 homicides/100,000 residents is a relatively high homocide rate for the United States, São Paulo's 11/100,000 rate is half that of the rest of Brazil and one-fourth that of Rio de Janeiro. The explanation for this disparity between Rio and São Paulo is extremely simple:

What's made the difference seems simple but is revolutionary in a country where police often enter poor neighborhoods with guns blazing.

State police have put more emphasis on gathering intelligence about the gangs they're battling before confronting them and are trying to avoid firefights that often kill the innocent, Marzagao said. At the same time, the state has brought more social services to abandoned areas where gangs have long ruled.

That's included launching ''saturation operations'' in which hundreds of police officers and social workers occupy troubled neighborhoods for months to weed out gang leaders and establish a government presence. One such operation occupied Marques' neighborhood for nearly 90 days last year, triggering an 80 percent drop in
homicide rates there. ''Our plan is to plant the flag of the government where it's now absent,'' [state security secretary Ronaldo] Marzagao said.

The article mentions the criticisms of this effort, primarily that the results are tenuous. They may be tenuous (time will tell), but the value of actually trying to improve the infrastructure in the poor areas of São Paulo and establish a government presence where there previously had never been one (save for the invasions by federal police) is just a wonderful idea. In Rio (and, several years ago, in São Paulo), police go into favelas with guns blazing, indiscriminately shooting, leading to the deaths of hundreds of civilians who had nothing to do with the drug traffic each year. Such an approach has no final goal, no objectives to reach other than the vague "combat narco-trafficking," and only led to deaths of hundreds and even thousands with no real results.

What is more, the importance of offering of social services in this plan should not be underestimated. Many drug lords in the favelas maintain their hold on power by offering social services (health care, sanitation, electricity, cable television) to the favelas' everyday residents, providing the latter with more reason to resent the police efforts to root out the druglords. By trying to offer such services from the state's side, the program may truly undermine some of the drug lords' support within the favelas. Certainly, issues like class- and racial-identity may still help them in this regard, but it nonetheless is an important step. What is more, by uniting state-led infrastructural development with police actions, the efforts to combat narco-trafficking in the favelas gains an objective and a method that differentiates from the pointless "enter and open fire" approach still dominating in Rio.

Seeing how the São Paulo police have changed their approach and their objectives I think offers some real hope. Despite the critics, as of right now, the drop in deaths is very real, and very good. Hopefully, this will become permanent, and Rio's police (and in other cities, too) will adopt these methods as well, allowing the favelados to live a better life without the threat of random and pointless murders hanging so strongly over their daily lives.

Via Boz.