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Problems of Police Oversight in Brazil

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How effective is oversight of the police in Brazil? What are the strengths and weaknesses of current institutional mechanisms for police control? This working paper from the Centre for Brazilian Studies analyses the problem of subjecting the Brazilian police to truly effective control and oversight. It argues that the current system has been an almost compete failure in bringing about police accountability in Brazil.

Brazil has four police oversight mechanisms: military courts, the internal affairs office (corregedorias), the police ombudsman’s office (ouvidoria) and the prosecution service (Ministério Público). The system constitutes a chain in which inter-institutional relations are conflictive and uncoordinated, contributing to an overall failure of police accountability. The corregedorias filter out cases of police misconduct before they reach more independent elements of the system. The Ministério Público’s responsibility for criminal prosecution leads it into both conflict and connivance with the police, hindering impartial oversight. The ouvidorias are independent, but lack the powers to enforce improvements in internal review processes and there is very little non-governmental oversight of the police.

In the Brazilian context, accountability can be understood in terms of three concepts: transparência, fiscalização and responsabilidade. Transparência refers to the existence of clear rules and performance criteria, laid open to public scrutiny. Fiscalização refers to internal or external checking mechanisms to assess performance against rules, procedures and explicit criteria. Responsabilidade refers to a willingness and obligation on the part of institutions and individuals to take ownership of the consequences of their actions. Examining Brazil’s police accountability mechanisms in regard to these concepts shows that:

  • The military courts represent an enclave of exceptionalism, almost guaranteeing impunity for the majority of Brazil’s police. They are resistant to transparência, and see responsabilidade in terms of duty to the military police rather than the public.
  • The corregedorias are slow, secretive, ineffective and biased in favour of the police. They employ smokescreen tactics to avoid enforcing responsibilidade and fail to refer to existing rules and standards for police practice in carrying out fiscalização.
  • While the Ministério Público has strong legal powers of fiscalização and responsabilidade, institutional conflicts and limitations have prevented it from exercising these powers.
  • Of all the mechanisms, only the ouvidorias are wholly committed to accountability. They have achieved a high degree of transparência, although they still lack the power to carry out fiscalização and enforce responsabilidade.

Brazil’s police oversight mechanisms cannot be understood outside of the social, cultural and historical context of the justice system, reflected in police and public attitudes. A utilitarian rationale that sees violent methods as necessary to tackle crime leads to the naturalisation of police abuse and corruption. Current mechanisms of police accountability will continue to operate in a political vacuum and will retain a primarily reactive and partial character until:

  • the standards against which police performance and conduct are measured become much clearer and more objective;
  • accountability is conceived of in broader terms, with oversight mechanisms being more pro-active in reviewing police behaviour; and
  • police reform is carried out to eliminate underlying structural problems, enabling the Ministério Público to use its autonomy, resources and legal powers for police oversight.


Author: Fiona Macaulay
Source: Macaulay, F., 2005, 'Problems of Police Oversight in Brazil', Working Paper CBS-33-02, Centre for Brazilian Studies, University of Oxford
Size: 28 pages (222 kB)