Back on the streets of Rio de Janeiro after 20 years, the study Elemento Suspeito found the aggravation of racism in police encounters spilling over across the entire cycle of criminal justice. The first survey, coordinated by the Center of Studies on Security and Citizenship (CESEC), was published in 2003. The edition released today (Feb. 15) was given the subtitle Negro trauma: racismo e abordagem policial no Rio de Janeiro (“Black Trauma: Racism and Police Encounters in Rio de Janeiro”).

The figures show that black people make up 68 percent of those engaged by police on foot and 71 percent on public transportation—whereas black and brown citizens total 48 percent of the city’s population. In addition, 17 percent have been stopped more than ten times and 15 percent six to ten times. Among the individuals who had to undergo a house search, 79 percent were black, as were 74 percent of those who had a family member or friend killed by the police.

Social scientist Silvia Ramos, coordinator at CESEC, noted the results are “striking” and bring to light a routine that constantly targets the same people—a vicious cycle in the country’s justice system.

“The approach starts a mechanism within the criminal justice system. First, people are approached; the people approached are often the ones found in flagrante delicto; they’re usually taken to the police station, where they’re charged by a chief of police who trusts the officer’s word, claiming the black boy from the favela was a gang member. These are the ones most commonly sentenced, and so our prisons are packed with black kids.”


In Ramos’s view, police activities display a race-based culture that begins with the encounters and the embarrassing frisks.

“When the police approach someone, they sometimes do a body search—hands up on the wall, legs apart, and the police touch you as they search for weapons and drugs. It’s quite invasive and may be extremely violent, often embarrassing and humiliating. We found that more than 70 percent of the people approached are black.”

Ramos notes that the police practice of always picking out poor, black youths from the favelas is both racist and ineffective.

“Instead of arresting criminals, the police end up resorting to this mechanism—the police approach, the only police mechanism. We know, however, that gangs and crime are dismantled through investigation and intelligence—not being out on the streets everyday with an eye ever fixed on black kids as if they were suspects, harassing kids with a practice that’s trauma-inducing.”

Situations marked by embarrassment and police violence against black people, the specialist reported, grew worse in the last 20 years, whereas security did not improve for the city as a whole.


The survey heard 739 people and served to expand the research on young favela residents, delivery workers, ride-sharing drivers, women, and officers. Based on age, gender, skin color, social class, and territory, researchers identified the typical set of characteristics shared by those engaged by the police. They are usually black men of up to 40 years old, who live in the favela or on the city’s outskirts, with a monthly income of up to three minimum wages.

Across all scenarios considered, the proportion of blacks approached by law enforcement agents is always higher than that of whites. Black people add up to 74 percent of those approached on vans, 72 percent in ride-sharing app vehicles, 68 percent riding a motorbike, and 67 percent at an event or party.

The military police heard in the survey stated they identify a suspicious individual—or “elemento suspeito,” the phrase after which the study was named—as one sporting “a pencil-thin mustache dyed blond, hair dotted with blond dye, a Flamengo jersey shirt, and a cap.” The researchers argue the description fits the aesthetics of young people from Rio’s slums and outlying districts.

In a comparison with 2003, threats in police encounters went from 6.5 to 23 percent and the experience of having a gun pointed at the person rose from 9.7 to 28 percent. Having been stopped over ten times surged from 8.2 to 17 percent, and frisking soared from 36.9 to 50 percent.

Ramos underscores the psychological impact the law enforcement routine makes on young black people, who often change their habits to shun such encounters, which includes forgoing the use of accessories such as bags and garments that may fit the stereotype.

“Sometimes you’re not even approached, but the fear of that happening makes you choose another path when heading somewhere, or you may decide you’re no longer going out. Sometimes you’re too scared or embarrassed of going out with friends or your girlfriend because you may have to undergo a humiliating procedure.”

Regarding police operations, 80 percent of respondents believe they must exist, but 97 percent disagree that agents may injure or kill people during a crackdown.


In a note, the State Secretariat of Military Police declared it is the corporation’s central mission to “defend the society of Rio de Janeiro,” adding its actions are “based on rigid protocol, training, and guidance.”

“Most military police agents stem from the classes near the base of society, including impoverished communities, which brings our police close to the structural, historical, and social setting in which they work,” the note reads. “The corporation was among the country’s first public institutions to be led by a black man. Today, more than half of its street agents and officials are of African descent.”

The Civil Police reported they make no use of this type of encounter and policing approach—which make up the focus of the study—but rather “conduct investigations based on intelligence, and not race, faith, or any other characteristic.”

Recent cases

The violence employed by the security forces against black people was made conspicuous in recent incidents that took place in Rio de Janeiro. On Monday (14), street vendor Hiago Macedo de Oliveira Bastos, 22, was shot dead by an off-duty military officer outside the ferry station of Niterói, in Rio’s metropolitan region.

On February 6, delivery man Yago Corrêa de Souza, 21, was arrested after buying bread in Jacarezinho, western Rio. He was accused of drug trafficking and was held for two days. He has been released on parole.

Early this month, Durval Teófilo Filho, 38, was shot and killed by his neighbor, Navy Sargent Aurélio Alvez Bezerra, while he was taking his key out of his backpack to open the gate to his own home in São Gonçalo, in the greater Rio area. The military man claimed he mistook his neighbor for a thief.

Source: Agência Brasil