Study shows that Brazilian courts avoid holding police accountable for deaths of black people
According to a study by the Center for Racial Justice and Law at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Sao Paulo Law School, Brazil’s courts avoid holding police officers accountable for the deaths of black people, even in high-profile cases. The study looked at prominent cases over the last 30 years and produced a podcast recounting stories and public debate about racist violence.
Convictions annulled at second-instance level, reduced sentences, shelved investigations, murders attributed to victims themselves, summary acquittals, police officers’ statements taken as procedural truth, ignored prosecution witnesses and reparation measures for relatives of victims treated with neglect… According to the study, this list is part of a standardized repertoire, which has been used by the Brazilian justice system to avoid holding individuals and institutions accountable in cases of lethal violence practiced by security agents against black people.
With the support of Google.org, Google’s philanthropic arm, the Tides Foundation, the Race, Gender and Racial Justice Research and Training Center at the Brazilian Center for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP) and law firm CQS/FV Advogados, the study analyzed eight cases of police killings of black people in the last three decades: the Carandiru Prison Massacre (1992), the Naval Massacre (1997), the Borel Massacre (2003), the case of Amarildo de Souza (2013), the Cabula Massacre (2015), the Paraisópolis Massacre (2019), the case of Luana Barbosa dos Reis (2016), and the case of João Alberto Freitas (2020).
The study gave rise to a podcast with eight episodes. Narrated by actor Christian Malheiros and content creator Andreza Delgado, “Justice in Black and White” interviewed people who were directly or indirectly involved in these cases of police brutality, including relatives, activists, lawyers, lawmakers and specialists.
The podcast looked at what happens when demands for justice in response to crimes committed by police officers end up paralyzed by institutions. A website called Racial Justice and the Law was also created, providing detailed information on the study and each case.
“These cases received a lot of media attention. Social control intensified by the visibility of these incidents could in theory put pressure on judges and prosecutors to act with some procedural zeal, but that hasn’t happened,” says Professor Thiago Amparo of the FGV Sao Paulo Law School, one of the study’s coordinators. He points out that although the study identified state responses that would not have occurred in lower-profile episodes, “in the justice system, the same patterns present in cases ignored by the press tend to persist, even in high-profile cases.”
The researchers found the Public Prosecutors’ Office, which is responsible for external control of police activity, to suffer from institutional inertia. Even in the eight high-profile cases in question, police brutality was only investigated after intense social pressure and the mobilization of organizations outside the justice system, such as human rights organizations and social movements. “When in doubt, the homicides were initially treated as resulting from confrontations between police and victims, as if this were the norm when black people die,” says Paulo Ramos, a sociologist and one of the study’s authors.
Justice in Black and White podcast
There are many Brazilian podcasts related to “true crime” stories. However, a quick look at the highest rated podcasts shows that episodes involving black victims are rare, even though most homicide victims in Brazil are black. This also applies to deaths by police officers. In 2021, for example, Brazilian police officers killed 6,145 people and 84.1% of them were black.
“There is a process of downplaying deaths connected to racism. As a result, these crimes disappear from the radar of media narratives and they also disappear from public memory,” says Professor Marta Machado of the FGV Sao Paulo Law School, who coordinates the school’s Center for Racial Justice and Law. In her opinion, there is repeated legitimation of homicidal conduct by the police. “For example, there is continuity between the judiciary and journalistic coverage. Both tend to see the victims primarily as public enemies, justifying their murder,” she says.
The first podcast episode recounts the story of the Carandiru Prison Massacre in 1992. The investigations are still ongoing, 30 years on. The study found that the Sao Paulo State Court of Appeals was directly responsible for delays in processing lawsuits, the annulment of the 2001 conviction of Colonel Ubiratan (who led the action) and the annulment of military police officers’ convictions in 2013 and 2014.
The study also presents a series of recommendations for institutions, especially those in the justice system, to stop practices that have resulted in the legitimation of racial violence. These recommendations include acknowledging statements by family members, survivors and other witnesses and not giving preference to claims by security agents involved in the cases.
Second, the researchers underscore the need for the Brazilian criminal justice system to recognize evidence of state racism and its impact on deaths. “The first step is to listen to other witnesses and not just state agents. The testimony of civilians, survivors and relatives of victims needs to be considered in trials,” says Paulo Ramos.
They also argue there is a need for media coverage that does not confuse victims with alleged criminals and that manages to report more objectively without reinforcing racial stereotypes. “When there is little or no judicial accountability, it is important at least for the media to not undermine the activism of family members and end up revictimizing them,” says Juliana Farias, one of the project’s coordinators.
Finally, the study’s authors stress the importance of institutions listening to black organizations and movements, as well as victims’ families, before responding to state violence. “This step is certainly needed before we can break the cycle of racial violence. If only those who pull the trigger are held accountable, there will never be an effective commitment to the non-repetition of racial violence practices. It is necessary to draw attention to each part of this system, which bureaucratically administers the deaths of black people,” Farias adds.
Find out more about the research project, called Challenges of State Responsibility for Deaths of Black Youth: Social Contexts and Legal Narratives in Brazil.
Visit the Racial Justice and the Law website.
Listen to the Justice in Black and White podcast.