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In Brazil’s Slums, Police Try A Softer Touch

December 2nd, 2009
Police Capt. Pricilla Azevedo is the commander of a new community policing unit in Rio de Janeiro.

Police Capt. Pricilla Azevedo is the commander of a new community policing unit in Rio de Janeiro.

The residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums are accustomed to seeing the police come in with guns blazing.

But in Santa Marta, one of Rio’s oldest slums, or favelas, the police are trying an entirely different approach, one officials want to replicate citywide ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games.

Efforts at community policing already are bringing positive change, and residents are cautiously optimistic.

When police go into the favelas, they go prepared for combat — with helmets, assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and, often, helicopter support.

Then, they retreat.

Those tactics were well-known in Santa Marta’s tight warren of cinderblock homes, a neighborhood that was once as violent as they come.

But that’s not Capt. Pricilla Azevedo’s style. Instead of a helmet, the 31-year-old known by residents as simply “Captain Pricilla” wears a soft, blue beret.

Along a steep street, Azevedo stops to greet Salvador Pinto de Souza. The 70-year-old remembers being among the first to settle Santa Marta. He saw, firsthand, Santa Marta’s slide into chaos as drug gangs took over.

“I don’t know if she likes me, but she is always popping in to see me,” says Pinto de Souza. “She might be checking to make sure I’m still alive,” he adds.

Azevedo is the commander of a special community policing unit, among the first of its kind in Rio. A year ago, police swarmed into Santa Marta and drove out drug trafficking gangs. Azevedo and her team of 125 cops then moved in — and stayed. Her job entails seeing what people like Pinto de Souza need.

She says the idea is to serve as a liaison between residents and the government. With her new unit has come improved water and electrical service — and even a new soccer field.

Winning hearts and minds isn’t easy, though. Rio’s police killed more than 1,100 people last year. And the United Nations, noting that few of those killings are investigated, called police operations in the favelas “murderous and self-defeating.”

Sgt. Gilson — he says he is not authorized to give his last name — is among the tough cops in this district of Rio. He says a heavy hand is necessary in violent slums.

Riding shotgun on a recent day, the snout of his assault rifle poking out the car window, Gilson says if police “show weakness,” they will lose.

He also says deaths are a necessary byproduct of fighting crime in the slums, which he equates with war.

Jose Mariano Beltrame, Rio’s secretary of public security, acknowledges that there is a problem with some Rio officers.

Beltrame says the officers in the new community policing units will be new themselves. That way, says Beltrame, they won’t come in with the inherent vices of veteran street cops.

Santa Marta has picturesque views of Brazil’s famous beaches. Azevedo walks from home to home with two fellow police officers.

She says it’s hard to turn around 50 years of history in Santa Marta, but that her intention is to change the impression people have of the police.

Thiago Firmino is a young street activist and a teacher who says he has seen a difference. He says things aren’t perfect, but they are much better than before. Crime is down, and his 8-year-old son can ride his bike in the street for the first time, Firmino says.

He says residents know they can go to Azevedo to complain — about crime or about the behavior of the police.

In fact, Firmino says, residents have the police captain’s phone number — something he never imagined could happen.

by Juan Forero

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