By Betina Monteiro
Brazil, a project to disseminate human rights rules is beginning
to transform police practice and attitudes.
VIRGINIA CANEDO / ICRC
Discussing the inter-American human rights
On 30 August 2001, a kidnapping took account of Brazilian
television schedules — this time, with consequences
no one could have foreseen. The hostage was the country's
most popular presenter, Silvio Santos, who is also the owner
of the second largest Brazilian TV network. He was held in
his home by the same kidnapper who, a week before, had captured
one of his daughters and, in fleeing, had killed two police
officers and wounded a third. Outside the house a climate
of tension reigned. If anything went wrong, the whole of Brazil
would know about it.
Lieutenant Marcos Henrique da Silva, an officer in the São
Paulo State Military Police (PMESP) assigned to the case,
arrived at the house. There he gathered the police together,
made a plan, scoured the premises and surrounded the property.
In a few minutes, his men were behind the house, facing a
large gym protected by a glass door. Inside were the kidnapper
and his victim.
The lieutenant contained and isolated the premises, then
took up a position behind a bullet-proof screen. He was now
ready to initiate negotiations with the kidnapper, who was
holding two guns to the presenter's head. He said that he
was from the police, he explained that he was there to help
and he asked a couple of questions that showed he was in control
of the situation. He made it clear that if the kidnapper gave
himself up he would get out of there safe and sound.
The negotiations ended seven hours later without a single
shot having been fired.
Valuable lessons learned
For a country accustomed to police operations that regularly
involve an exchange of shots, this was unusual, to say the
least. The fundamental fact in this story is that Lieutenant
Henrique's behaviour did not happen by accident. He had undergone
three weeks of special training organized by the ICRC and
the Brazilian ministry of justice, in conjunction with the
military police. "The course changed my professional
approach," says Lieutenant Henrique. "Before, I
would have smashed the glass door with a kick and I'd have
gone in there firing."
On this course, however, the lieutenant was taught to act
in a way that safeguards the individual's right to life, to
integrity and to dignity. "Following an order of priority,
of course," explains the former student. "In the
first place, protecting the life of a citizen — whether
victim or passer-by. Second, the life of the police officer.
And lastly, that of the offender." In other words, he
was trained to carry out police operations in accordance with
international human rights rules.
To ensure that this new philosophy was incorporated into
police routine, the ICRC, the ministry of justice and military
police designed a training course that would work in both
theory and practice. A teaching programme was developed, based
on human rights law and universal humanitarian principles
with practical, technical and tactical exercises.
In practical sessions, the police officers learned the most
effective manner to arrest individuals, how to search vehicles
and premises, and when to use firearms or force. They also
studied the basics of negotiation and crisis management.
CANEDO / ICRC
The challenge is to put norms into practice.
MEIER / ICRC
Arrest techniques must match human rights provisions.
"Police officers, like all human beings, are rational
beings subject to instincts and emotions. Although they may
have gone through a selection process and have been trained
before going on to the streets, once they're there, when they
come across a dangerous problem their emotions and instincts
influence the brain's rational cycle," says Major André
Vianna, who represented the state of São Paulo in the
first training group. "So the course works like a training
session. The concepts are applied and re-applied in situations
of stress, in which the police would tend to lose their heads.
In this way, they become reflexes."
When the first training course was held, in 1998, role playing
of situations that were common in police routine highlighted
incorrect approaches. In a situation with a hostage in a closed
environment, for example, most of the police officers displayed
"dangerous bravery", in other words, they went in
shooting. "So we go over the exercise again and again
until the student is convinced that, in such a situation,
there is no necessity for rushing and the appropriate thing
to do is to persuade the offender to give himself up,"
says Major Vianna, now an instructor.
In his view, with suitable training it is possible to evaluate
what was done correctly and what incorrectly and, ultimately,
to identify who will never be able to have real control over
their feelings at the crucial moment. "At the end of
the day, there can be no conflict between saving lives and
police work," he concludes.
From the very first, the idea of the ICRC was to empower
police officers who would pass on the knowledge to others.
For this reason, 21 officers from 19 Brazilian states were
selected, from the ranks of captain to lieutenant colonel,
many of them proficient in English. And later, this first
group, under the supervision of an ICRC specialist in police
matters, would be responsible for training other instructors
in their respective states, and also other states. Thus from
September 1998 to the middle of 2002, 996 military police
professionals from Brazil and other Latin American countries
such as Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Guatemala,
Jamaica, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela underwent training.
In the beginning, many barriers had to be overcome in order
for the project to take off. "To begin with, there was
— and still is — a preconception in society and
in political circles concerning human rights issues. There
is still a need to make people aware that human rights are
everyone's rights and that there is no incompatibility between
good policing and respect for the fundamental rights of human
beings." At the time, Lieutenant Henrique received the
invitation to take part in the course with a certain amount
"I'd been retired from police work for six months, as
I'd been involved in a dangerous operation in which three
offenders were casualties, and then they ask me to go on a
course on human rights. What was I to think? That it was some
form of punishment, obviously," he remembers, with a
Not only did the ICRC surmount these difficulties, it extended
the course to other areas of police training. Today, dissemination
on operations carried out in accordance with human rights
rules also takes place in the courses held annually, in lectures
given daily and
in training videos.
Human rights training is also now part of the curriculum
in the academies and training centres for the country's various
military police forces. In addition to this, the human rights
themes are part of courses on the use of firearms. Should
they fire or not? What position should they adopt? The training
teaches them about the different tactics to be adopted for
protection, negotiation, verbalization and the surrender of
So prospects are good. Clearly, much remains to be done.
But the new generation of police are already being trained
with this more positive approach. "As it involves a cultural
aspect, I think it will take five to ten years for the change
to be complete. In any case, there's no turning back. It is
no longer possible to imagine a police officer who is not
a promoter and protector of human rights," says
ERICH MEIER / ICRC
Police officers from different forces sharing
ideas during a training session in São Paulo.
Betina Monteiro is a freelance journalist based in Brazil.
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