Sāo Paulo’s far-right governor favorite backs removing body cams from police

Two years ago, São Paulo became the first state in Brazil to issue body cameras to its police officers, and the results were stunning: the number of people killed in clashes with police fell by more than half and the number of people resisting arrest fell by almost two-thirds.

So what is the favourite in the race to become São Paulo governor talking about doing? Removing the cameras.

The proposed “re-evaluation” of a successful project is perhaps not surprising given the background of Tarcísio de Freitas, the far-right candidate for the top job in Brazil’s richest and most populous state.

A former infrastructure minister in the government of extremist president Jair Bolsonaro, De Freitas embraces Covid-deniers, promises to prosecute women who have illegal abortions and faces opposition from university rectors who say his policies threaten São Paulo’s position as Brazil’s educational leader.

But it is his position on body cams that has caused controversy in a race that is perhaps second only in importance to that of the presidential contest.

“De Freitas’s declarations, going against the positive results verified by the São Paulo government, are not surprising given he represents the Bolsonaro government of denialists who don’t care about statistics or science,” said Ariel de Castro Alves, a lawyer who is also president of a leading anti-torture organisation.

“He takes these positions because he follows the Bolsonaro line of stimulating police violence.”

De Freitas has since pulled back slightly, saying he would talk to experts about whether to remove body cams. He is the favourite to win the 30 October runoff election, having received 42.3 % of the votes in the first round, against Workers’ party candidate Fernando Haddad’s 35.7 %.

Tarcísio de Freitas speaks during a press conference in São Paulo, Brazil, on 17 October. Photograph: Miguel Schincariol/AFP/Getty Images

The introduction of body cams by rightwing governor João Doria was seen as a way of preventing violence by and against police officers.

Some 6,416 people were killed by Brazilian police in 2020 and almost a third of the homicides in São Paulo state came in what are euphemistically called “confrontations” with officers.

More than 99% of those killed were male and more than half were under the age of 24, according to a study released earlier this year by the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety. Some 84 % were black.

But homicides fell dramatically after police were given body cams. In the third and fourth quarters of 2021, the number of homicides in regions where police wore the cams decreased by 77.4% and 47%, respectively, according to data from the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) thinktank, while the same numbers went up by 9.1% and 10.9% in battalions where cameras were yet to be introduced.

The number of police officers killed while on duty more than halved, according to police stats.

“The results in the US and other countries have been mixed and there is not a consensus that [the body cams] reduce abuse or violence but in São Paulo the results have been very impressive,” said Ignacio Cano, a university professor and longtime expert on Brazilian security issues.

“There isn’t anything very profound about [De Freitas’s] decision, it’s all about control,” he added. “It’s a decision taken on ideological rather than technical lines, and the Bolsonaristas are positioning themselves against modernity and technology.”

The São Paulo police department would not respond to questions, citing a required quiet period ahead of the 30 October ballot. However, police chiefs call them “an important instrument in the defence and security of police officers”.

Experts also said the cams were not the only reason for the improved figures.

The recent purchase of 7,500 stun guns means São Paulo now has more than any other city outside London and New York, and a broader policy that includes an ombudsman and more oversight of police practices has also helped.

Leadership from a progressive governor is also a key factor, the FGV study concluded.

De Freitas, though, said rank-and-file officers feel like Big Brother is watching them.

“For me it is a vote of distrust in law enforcement officers,” he told a local radio station a few weeks ago. “Between trusting the police and trusting criminals, I prefer to trust the police.”

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Andrew Downie in Sao Paulo