Public security is becoming increasingly militarized in many countries in Latin America as in other regions. This trend can be conceived as a predisposition of security systems due to their current configuration. Many of them historically derived from or were formed in military structures. Some of them are modernizing, but in general, these institutions lack internal diversity, they are predominantly male and white at the higher levels and very hierarchical. All this discourages the emergence of diverse ideas. The way in which many of them build their military or police ethos also makes them corporatist, inward-looking institutions, distanced from social debates and disregarding contributions from other specialties or sectors.
Added to this are the social and political pressures which –arising from a legitimate concern about security–, refer back to what society already knows, making immediate or populist demands: more prisons, more police on the streets and more combat. This is why militarization ends up becoming a trend for most public security institutions. With so many factors reinforcing their role, these gigantic structures act based on inertia, unless breaks, detours and signals are placed on their path to make them change direction.
Herein lays the fundamental role of civil society, academia, journalism and critical security analyses. It is necessary to question assumptions and to actively seek new perspectives and ways to promote security. Likewise, to build research based on a good scientific methodology capable of changing biased perspectives. It is also necessary to analyze results from different angles and verify different types of information, such as crime reduction indicators, public trust and efficiency.
In view of the chronic shortage of public resources, it is also strategic to identify the essential areas for investment and promote a cycle of changes. With this kind of evidence, it is possible to trigger changes in external dialogue and even in internal cooperation with security institutions. Below are two brief examples:
Brazil suffers high levels of police lethality that amount to up to 13% of all violent deaths in the country and victimize young black men in particular. Following a number of instances when the Military Police in the state of São Paulo committed abuses of use of force and these were recorded on video by witnesses, a series of organizations, civil society and family members of the victims began to pressurize, under the spotlight of the press and investigations indicating that this is a systemic problem; as a result, the state governor and the police commander embraced new possibilities and launched an internal project to reduce lethality. Thanks to the use of body cameras, changes in training, commissions that study every operation that causes the death of citizens, the use of less lethal weapons and an emphasis on mental health, in two years police lethality dropped to 30% and violent deaths of police officers also declined. In some police units, lethality dropped by 80%. These results shocked society and all the military police forces in the country. They promote, to different degrees and at different rhythms, structural questioning about the kind of police forces we want, what their relationship with society is like, and what role structural racism plays in those deaths.
In a different case, we identified the importance of shedding light on the judicial police that leads investigations, both as a means to counter the ostentation of street police presence and its militarization, and also because high quality investigations are needed to understand crime dynamics, to respond to organized crime as well as to digital crime challenges and to promote improved access to justice.
It soon became clear that the homicide solving rate in Brazil was surprisingly low, around 32%, and weak points were identified in these processes. This topic was not being discussed in society, nor did we find spaces for dialogue. We created a case solving ranking of all the Brazilian states as well as a long communication campaign in a language easy to understand for the population that made the problem explicit and showed the contrast of having prisons full of non-violent, small-scale traffickers while homicide cases remain unsolved.
The ranking made chiefs of police and governors uncomfortable, as it led to true stories in the press and studies on the lack of investment. Four years later, we managed to mobilize a network of judicial police to draft guidelines for homicide investigations for national dissemination. The issue was also present in the main electoral debates for the election of governors.
Through strong evidence, social demand and an active search, we found several public officials willing to engage in dialogue, with the courage to experiment with new practices and from different angles. This is important, because it makes it possible to implement a pilot project, to put proposals into practice, to identify necessary amendments and to study their true impact. With short or mid-term results, it becomes possible to expand those practices and their foundations from a different perspective, breaking down paradigms with concrete examples that show that it is possible to do this, creating spaces for new steps forward and involving public officials and police agents as spokespersons of this experience, providing them with the opportunity for their voices to be heard.
Furthermore, these experiences prove that the relationships of other sectors with security bodies need not be based on opposition; they can also be seen as a relationship of constructive criticism, of additional diligence and of joining efforts for the benefit of our common challenge: a safer and more prosperous society for all.
Natália Pollachi is a project manager at the Brazilian NGO Sou da Paz Institute, whose focus is to promote better public security policies. Pollachi has a master’s degree in International Relations from the University of São Paulo.