Meet Rio’s new forensic police officers

graduation women

Today, I watched 100 new Civil Police forensic experts get sworn in for the first time, after training at the police academy. It’s a cliche to say that police are getting younger (when in reality, it’s me that’s getting older) but also I noted that so many of them are women. “The presence of women is increasing every time. We have no quota policy, but more women are entering every time there is a new course. The image of the police today is totally different to what it was before,” the Civil Police boss Fernando Veloso told me afterwards.

Brazil’s police force is made up of Federal Police, Civil Police and Military Police, which makes it sometimes complicated to understand who is responsible for what. Civil Police investigate crimes, while the Military Police are on the streets, and the Federal Police are responsible for things like policing borders, as a simple explanation. In general, the Civil Police in Rio are pretty well-represented when it comes to women. I’ve spent quite a bit of time on police operations and in police stations here, and while I was expecting a macho environment, it was good to see the respect for the female deputies and officers. One such deputy here in Rio was used as the inspiration for a novela character and has become semi-famous. She was referred to as the “poderosa chefona” (powerful female boss, is the best way I can translate that) by the mainly male officers in that station. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to women in the Civil Police. Its cover photo is a pair of high-heeled, crossed legs, with a pink handbag and its contents strewn around it, which include a pistol and a pair of handcuffs. “Far from being the fragile sex!” its strapline announces.

It’s a good thing to have more women in the police not just because it’s always good to have women in positions of power and responsibility. A survey in 2003 found that 70% cariocas, or residents of Rio, believed that having more females in the police would make them less violent and more respected overall. It has certainly been part of the policy for the police pacification units in the favelas of Rio. Privately, some cops have complained that women join and don’t want to act on the streets or even carry guns, but are attracted by the security of a government job. Change takes time.

At the graduation, both the Governor Luiz Fernando Pezao and Rio’s security boss Jose Beltrame spoke of the challenges ahead and the progress which has been made in terms of valuing the profession of police. In a city which has been so dogged by violence for many decades, and with the almost daily reports of police brutality or abuses of power, the profession itself had become somewhat denigrated. You have to hope that a new generation, one that is not exclusively male and macho, will ring in those changes. I really want to look at those fresh faces and believe in that.

“Public security is starting to be valued as a profession. Brazil is learning in the cruellest way possible, through loss of lives, but it is starting to wake up,” Beltrame told the expectant new recruits. “You will encounter difficulties in your work, you will find deficiencies. You will resolve these like the head of a family, working out your priorities at the end of each month, and solving one thing at a time.”

graduation pezao
Rio’s Governor Pezao gives a certificate to the one of the new female recruits

Pezao, who was re-elected at the beginning of this month, also stressed the challenges ahead. “I look at Rio de Janeiro eight years ago and I look at it now. We’ve got a lot to do still but we have achieved a lot so far,” he said.

Later today, across town in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela, a vigil was held in memory of Hugo Leonardo Santos Silva, 33, who was shot by Military Police in 2012. His family said he was a builder who was shot when approached by police and searched, while the police at the time claimed he was involved in a shoot out with them. It was a reminder that the issue of policing here remains extremely contentious. Many of these protests are about the pacification units and the Military Police action in favelas, but in a country which had 56,000 murders in 2012 it is clear that violence is still a severe problem. That’s something these new recruits, male or female, will have to face on a daily basis. Good luck to them.