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Friday, October 25, 2013

Rio Police Officer Indicted for Torture While Lecturing on ‘Smart Policing’ in New York

Vanessa Coimbra, a police officer from Rio de Janeiro, spoke at a Google Ideas conference in New York on Tuesday, just hours after she was indicted by prosecutors back home.Robert Mackey/The New York Times Vanessa Coimbra, a police officer from Rio de Janeiro, spoke at a Google Ideas conference in New York on Tuesday, just hours after she was indicted by prosecutors back home.

A Brazilian police officer who spoke at a technology conference in New York on Tuesday about the potential of a new smartphone app to aid in the “pacification” of Rio de Janeiro’s lawless favelas was indicted the same day by prosecutors back home in connection with a notorious case of torture and murder by her unit in July.

The officer, Vanessa Coimbra, appeared on stage at the Google Ideas summit on “Conflict in a Connected World” to describe field testing of the Smart Policing Android app, designed to promote accountability by transforming every beat cop’s smartphone into a wearable camera.

Three hours before Ms. Coimbra’s presentation, she was charged with failing to prevent the torture and murder of a man suspected by fellow officers from the Pacifying Police Unit in Rio’s Rocinha favela of having information on drug dealers. Prosecutors have been under pressure to act in the case since the mysterious disappearance of the Rocinha resident, Amarildo Dias de Souza, became a focus of demonstrations across Brazil this summer.

Video recorded on Tuesday at the Google Ideas summit in New York during a presentation on the development and testing of the new Smart Policing app for Android phones.

As our colleague Simon Romero reported, earlier this month prosecutors charged 10 officers from the Rocinha Pacifying Police Unit, one of several new clusters in the city’s slums known by the Portuguese acronym U.P.P., with direct involvement in the torture and murder of the suspect known simply as Amarildo.

The front page of Wednesday's edition of the Brazilian newspaper O Dia. The front page of Wednesday’s edition of the Brazilian newspaper O Dia.

It is not clear when the officer learned of her indictment, and even initial reports on her lecture in the Brazilian press failed to make the connection between her turn on stage in New York and the new charges against her and 14 fellow officers for failing to stop the torture. When she flew home on Wednesday, however, her name was on the front page of the Brazilian newspaper O Dia in a report on the 25 accused officers. That night, reporters at the paper connected the dots.

A spokeswoman for the Rio police force told The Lede that Ms. Coimbra’s indictment in the Amarildo case by prosecutors from Brazil’s organized crime unit came as a surprise to her superiors. She was selected to represent the department at the conference because her unit had been involved in preliminary testing of the Smart Policing app this year and she was the only officer from that group who speaks English.

In public relations material, the Rio force has also been keen to draw attention to the fact that it now includes an increasing number of female officers and Ms. Coimbra showed a photograph of her new commanding officer, Maj. Pricilla de Oliveira, with children in the favela.

Video posted on YouTube by the Rio de Janeiro governor’s office last week stressed the increasing number of female police officers serving in Pacifying Police Units.

Ms. Coimbra’s co-presenter on Tuesday was Robert Muggah of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank that is developing the software as part of a non-profit project supported by Google. Mr. Muggah declined to comment on the charges against Ms. Coimbra. In their presentation, however, he made it clear that the goal of the app was to promote accountability and transparency and to make interactions between officers and the public safer for both sides by producing a record of every incident.

Although officers in Rocinha were involved in field tests of the app in July, when the torture and killing took place, there is apparently no video evidence that could help prosecutors since the testing was at a preliminary phase, and primarily technical in nature at the time. Rather than recording every minute of every officer’s day, in recent months the cameras were simply dropped off with individual officers once or twice a week and then collected at the end of the day to check the technical quality of the recordings, the impact of the software on battery life and the reliability of 3G networks in the neighborhood, to see if real-time streaming would be possible in favelas where basic services are often of poor quality.

The software was unveiled at the Google Ideas conference â€" designed to “bring attention to tools and approaches designed to empower people in the face of conflict or repression” â€" because the company had supported the development of the app for phone running its Android operating system. A Google spokesperson told The Lede, “Smartphones can be used to build stronger relationships between citizens and their government. The Igarapé Institute has explored this interaction in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, and we’ve pitched in to design technology that helps.”

Although the brutality of police officers in Brazil is well-documented, there is little doubt that the work of trying to bring law and order to the more than 1,000 favelas in Rio that have only recently been brought under the control of the state, after years of domination by organized crime gangs, is dangerous and difficult.

In official literature, the government of Rio refers the new presence of police officers in the city’s previously autonomous slums in starkly military terms. One introduction to the U.P.P.s notes that they have been deployed in recent years in “the pacified communities” only after “the occupation of the territory by security forces.”

A video report from the newspaper O Estadão de São Paulo on a patrol of the Rocinha favela in 2012 by officers from the Pacifying Police Unit set up that year.

Writing in the Huffington Post in August, Mr. Muggah argued that while “there are many serious shortcomings of the U.P.P. experiment,” a “crisis of credibility is occurring at precisely the moment when evidence shows that pacification works.”

Consider the numbers. Before pacification, Rio registered roughly 42 homicides per 100,000 people in 2005 â€" with most victims consisting of poor black youth. Today, the homicide rate has declined to 26 homicides per 100,000. While the murder rate is intolerably high, the improvements are irrefutable. Rio de Janeiro is safer for all of its residents than in the past.

As an official history explains, the U.P.P. only established a foothold in the Rocinha favela in late September of last year. The force remains garrisoned in a station made up of shipping containers on the side of the neighborhood’s steep hills. According to prosecutors, the victim known simply as Amarildo was tortured to death in a small tank behind those containers.

A video report produced by the Rio governor’s office at that time showed the first commander of the Rocinha U.P.P., Maj. Edson Santos, standing in front of those containers.

Video of the commander of the Rocinha U.P.P., Maj. Edson Santos, standing in front of a makeshift police station in 2012.

According to a detailed account of the killing of Amarildo released on Tuesday by the prosecutor’s office, the fatal torture took place in that location on the orders of Major Santos. (The Brazilian newspaper O Globo published an infographic based on the account on Wednesday.)

According to prosecutor Carmen Elisa Bastos, Lt. Luiz Felipe de Medeiros, Sgt. Reinaldo Gonçalves and Officers Anderson Maia and Douglas Vital tortured Amarildo after the bricklayer was taken, following orders of Major Edson Santos. They wanted to know the location of weapons and drugs hidden in the slum, after Operation Armed Peace had not led to results.

According to the testimonies, for about 40 minutes Amarildo underwent asphyxiation with a bag over his head and mouth, shocks with a taser gun, waterboarding in bucket with water from the air-conditioning unit of the U.P.P. in which blood traces were found.

According to the prosecutor, 11 policemen were ordered by the Lieutenant to stay inside the container and could hear the violence. Twelve others stayed on the lookout. Also according to the testimonies, Maj. Edson Santos remained in the container upstairs, in front of the site where the torture happened. Witnesses also reported hearing a request to bring a motorcycle plastic cover to wrap the body in, the noise of tape and of the body being removed from the tank through the roof in front of the woods.

The charges against the officers in the Amarildo case are the latest blow to a project that has been financed largely through corporate donations. In August, one month after the disappearance of Amarildo grew into a nationwide scandal, the Brazilian business tycoon Eike Batista, whose annual contributions of nearly $10 have paid for U.P.P. equipment, uniforms, weapons, ammunition and training withdrew his financial support for the project.