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A police matter

By Betina Monteiro

In Brazil, a project to disseminate human rights rules is beginning to transform police practice and attitudes.


Discussing the inter-American human rights system.

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.


The challenge is to put norms into practice.


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.

Training trainers

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 of suspicion.

"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 laugh.

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 the suspect.

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
Major Vianna.


Police officers from different forces sharing ideas during a training session in São Paulo.

Betina Monteiro
Betina Monteiro is a freelance journalist based in Brazil.

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