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Thu 11
How to improve the Brazilian police? New York shows us the way

How to improve the Brazilian police? New York shows us the way

The action of the military police in Rio de Janeiro on Sunday (7)  rekindled the debate on the lack of preparation of the Brazilian police forces in face of their duty to guarantee public safety

Luan Sperandio

The action of the military police in Guadalupe, Rio de Janeiro, which happened on Sunday (7) afternoon and was responsible for the death of 51-year-old musician Evaldo Rosa dos Santos, rekindled the debate on the lack of preparation of the Brazilian police forces in face of their duty to guarantee public safety. After the episode, ten Army officers involved were arrested. However, the death of Evaldo is just the tip of the iceberg in a country where over 5 thousand people are killed annually by police officers, according to the University of São Paulo Violence Study Nucleus’ Violence Monitor.

Rio de Janeiro, site of the tragedy, is precisely the state with the biggest rate of deaths caused by police officers – and also the one with the biggest number of deaths of police officers: it is the police force with the bigger number of deaths, with one police officer dying every three days. Another data which makes evident the chaos of insecurity in the state is that, according to the Sou da Paz Institute, the chance of a murder going unpunished in the state is nine times more likely than a case being solved, demonstrating investigation problems and the ridiculous investment on police intelligence – less than one percent of the entire investment on the sector.

This chaotic scenario clarifies the need for changes in the way security agents act, even if only to reduce criminality rates, to avoid tragedies like the one which happened on Sunday. In this sense, what has been done in New York for the past three decades may serve as an inspiration, especially regarding police restructuring: between the 1970s and the early 1990s, the US city was seen as one of the most dangerous metropolis in the world, with a discredited police force. In comparison with the past, New York has been completely transformed.

Unbridled violence

No wonder writer Bill Finger and artist Bob Kane were inspired by New York to create the violent and unsafe Gotham City, Batman’s place of birth: the number of murders, robberies, drug trafficking incidents and vehicle thefts in the US city was way above the national average during the 1930s. For comparison purposes, the city’s homicide rate until the 1990s exceeded 30 per 100 thousand inhabitants, a figure similar to the one in Brazil during 2016, according to the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety.

Walking on the streets, regardless of the place, or merely taking the subway, were daily chores surrounded by insecurity. The case of a Utah family who was robbed on the subway in 1990, in which the teenage son was murdered after trying to defend their parents, became symbolic.

There was a huge amount of insecurity among the population as to walking on the streets, regardless of the place, as well as too much police corruption, and places that were visually dirty and run-down. Streets and public means of transportation were dominated by beggars, drug dealers, drunks, thieves, prostitutes and drug addicts.

Broken windows

There was a turnaround, and New York became one of the safest cities in the country – its homicide rate in 2017 was 3.7 per 100 thousand inhabitants. The list of explanations for the reduction in crime, not only in New York, but in the United States as a whole, is extensive. A study done by Steven Levitt, famous for being one of the authors of the notorious best-seller ‘Freakonomics’, pointed out that, among the main factors for this reduction in crime, are an increase in the number of police officers and prison population, as well as a decline in the crack epidemic.

However, even though other US cities have also registered a drop in their crime rates, in no other was this drop as significant as the one witnessed in New York. If we are able to understand what happened in the city, we might be able to replicate it in Brazilian cities, and avoid the loss of funds destined to public policies.

In short, there was an effort not only by the public authorities, but also involving the activities of several institutions in the private sector and the civil society.

The first efforts involved the zero-tolerance policy, with an approach based on the Broken Windows Theory. In general lines, it maintained that the government’s inability to curb certain crimes, like vandalism, indicated to the citizens that it was unable to deal with more serious crimes.

This generated an environment of public disorder, which had a positive influence on the practice of more serious crimes. As studies have shown later, there was a correlation between environments where petty crimes happened and a bigger incidence of robberies and thefts of motorized vehicles. Therefore, the repression of such offenses was used as a policing measure.

In fact, the New York Police Department, influenced by public policymakers, like the vice-mayor during the Ed Koch administration, Herb Sturz, realized that the climate of disorder was threatening even the economy in Times Square. This is why police operations began to be held focusing on smaller crimes.

Even though the effectiveness of this sort of policy has been increasingly questioned by some studies made years later, the big repercussion of the so-called Operation Crossroads may have functioned as some sort of inflection point for other actions which, effectively, collaborated for a reduction of public insecurity in the city.

This happened because, as time went by, it became clear that sporadic police programs were not enough. There was a wide range of institutions which began works destined to restore public order.

With the support of several neighborhood associations, dozens of initiatives were implemented aiming at restoring public spaces. Among the tools they used were private security forces and hiring homeless people to clean up and plant trees. The disorderly environment was gradually reduced in dozens of blocks, and the process grew as time went by; while in 1989 there 33 such initiatives mapped, they totaled 61 in 2008.

In 1984, the person responsible for the New York City traffic, David Gunn, began to actively seek more order and safety in the city’s public transportation system. He worked to eradicate graffiti in the subway, and increased ticket inspections on public transportation. Little by little, the measures were able to inhibit the presence of offenders in the city.

When Democrat David Dinkins was elected as mayor in 1990, he proposed a US$ 1.8 billion dollar investment program to “fight fear”, and hired around 8 thousand new police officers. He also appointed Lee Brown, a police commissioner who supported “community policing”: the practice of neighborhood police patrols, betting on the approximation between inhabitants and police agents, which should solve conflicts whenever necessary, and not only when answering to emergency calls. After reaching a peak of violent deaths at the beginning of his term in office, the homicide rate in the city dropped by 30 percent in the following four years.

Even though there was some resistance from the authorities, and even from social movements (who reported possible civil rights violations, or even racial connotations in the way police officers approached suspects), the first successful cases gained visibility and encouraged a bigger political endorsement to improve such actions. The candidacy of Republican Rudy Giuliani in 1993, therefore, aimed at seeking a better quality of life for the city, focusing efforts on public security.

The innovations were extended to the local judiciary branch, with the opening, after 1993, of courts that would try more speedily those who committed lesser offenses.

The New York Police Department also made innovations, such as CompStat, a tactical and responsibility planning system, which identified where crimes were happening and placed the responsibility on local commanders of each area. That created an encouragement system which, through better diagnoses, contributed to more effective police actions, and helped to reduce criminality.

In short, a diversified set of organizing schemes in the city, seeking their own interests and using several tactics and programs, began the process of restoring order in its domains. Besides, in contrast to the first sporadic efforts, like Operation Crossroads, these attempts were implemented in a more persistent way.

Zero tolerance

During the 1990s, therefore, criminality rates in New York City dropped drastically, more than even in the United States as a whole.

The significant increase of detention rates partly help to explain that: when arrests of robbers increased by 10 percent, the number of robberies decreased by 0.5 percent. The detention rate of thieves increased by 10 percent, contributing to a decrease in the number of thefts in 5.9 percent. Violent crimes were reduced by more than 56 percent in the city, twice as much as the total in the country, while crimes against property fell by 65 percent, while they were reduced in 26 percent in the national scenario.

Researchers Hope Corman and H. Naci Mocan have become a reference in studies in New York since the 1980s. Their researches have identified several factors which might have affected criminality rates in the city. The police force, for instance, grew by 35 percent during the 1990s, the number of arrested citizens rose by 24 percent, and there were demographic changes, including a decline in the number of young people, the age group most likely to commit crimes. Macroeconomic questions also played a big role in the drop in criminality. The unemployment rate in the United States fell 25 percent from 1990 to 1999, while in the city it dropped by 39 percent during the same period.

Crime detention rates increased in up to 70 percent during the 1990s. Between 1990 and 1999, homicides dropped by 73 percent; burglary rates, 66 percent; robberies, 40 percent; thefts, 67 percent; and carjackings, 73 percent. The model of the authors is able to explain between 33 and 86 percent of the verified criminality reduction.

Long-term policies

Even though some may question the effectiveness of the “zero tolerance” policy, there is no discussion that police operation on open-air drug markets, as well as gun seizures, were determining factors. Besides, operations to contain the corruption of officers within the police force, with the arrest of members who had ties to drug trafficking rackets, resulted in the dismissal of hundreds of officers from the corporation in the early 1990s.

All this was possible only by improving the police personnel. Not only they began to be more valued between 1990 and 2000, but there was a significant increase in the number of officers in the streets. The increase in reducing criminality, therefore, according to researchers Bernard Harcount and Jens Ludwig, happened especially due to the increase in police patrols and the number of available officers.

With the aid of a data system, which identified areas with bigger crime rates, there was a more intelligent policing, and, therefore, not only the number of officers, but the way in which they were directed to places where there were bigger crime rates. The fight against internal corruption within the police force – which was previously seen as highly corrupt by the population – also helped in increasing the corporation’s self-esteem and trust.

The consequence was an improvement in the fight against drug traffic, but there was also the adoption of better technologies in order to have better control of police activities, such as the computerized system called CompStat. More recently, a device which works as a sensor began to be used: it detects gunshots, making it easier for police to approach suspects, and working as a warning sign for imminent risks. It all helps to avoid disproportionate reactions.

A strategy to avoid public drug markets was adopted, where previously there were conflicts between different factions in order to control them.

It should be pointed out that new authorities administrating the city maintained such innovations, instead of interrupting previously adopted policies, as it is customarily done by political officials. That enabled the adoption of long-run policies.

In the meantime, in Brazil, successful examples such as São Paulo’s – where crime rates were reduced by 78 percent in this century, have been deflected by fake narratives with a political connotation, such as the one claiming there was an alleged pact between the government and PCC. During this time, however, the whole corporation has been restructured, and the state invested, above all, in technology, intelligence, and personnel, becoming the federative entity with the best results in the country.

Rio de Janeiro, on the other hand, is heading in the opposite direction. Even in this technological area, the annual expenditures made by the Rio de Janeiro City Council on stamps for letters, for instance, is R$ 3.6 million. The amount is seven hundred times more than the figures destined to police intelligence in the state. In a scenario where preventive and improvement investments of police actions are not a priority, one may say that the public insecurity endured by the Rio de Janeiro population, which causes victims both among civilians and members of the police forces, is predictable.