Do We Feel Safer Now?

Posted by on July 12, 2013

Something that cannot go unnoticed when travelling through Brazil is the police presence. Firstly there are a lot of them, and secondly they are all armed. All of them. I noticed it when I was in Brazil over Easter, and I’m noticing it again now. I’ve discussed it with several volunteers whilst here, and I’ve decided to share my two cents.

(Note: I realise that this is a deviation from the usual levity of this blog, so I want to make it absolutely clear that these are my opinions, and I am not speaking on behalf of any other person or organisation.)

Now, the fact there seems to be a large police presence could be all in my head: they are a lot more conspicuous here in their pseudo-military uniforms, and I’ve spent the bulk of the last 11 months in a village without any form of visible police force. Their equipment, however, is certainly not a hallucination: at the bare minimum, every police officer has a handgun strapped to their thigh or abdomen, and several spare magazines clipped to their legs. Several officers also have knife sheaths strapped into their uniform which presumably aren’t full of sunshine and happiness, and a number of the bus/boat checkpoint officers also carry either shotguns or what looked to me like rather large assault rifles with folding shoulder stocks and hefty magazines.

I’ll make it clear here and now that I’m not so naïve as to argue entirely against a state’s law enforcement having weapons. It’s a sad fact, but all of us live in a world where an armed division of the police is a necessity in order to protect the public and uphold law, and that not having an armed response unit to call upon would be downright irresponsible. Would I like to live in a world where this wasn’t the case? Of course I would. Do I think I ever will? Not in my lifetime. That said, do we now live in such a hostile, violent world that every officer must have immediate access to a weapon, regardless of his or her assignment? I saw a man this week with a badge heralding him as a “Tourist Liason Officer” and a handful of pamphlets sporting maps of Manaus. Did he really need a handgun? You tell me.

I do not oppose an armed facet of law enforcement, but I cannot rationalise and feel comfortable with every single officer being armed, whether they are checking busses, helping tourists or patrolling the high street. I couldn’t comment on the setup’s effectiveness as a deterrent, or the effect it has on crime rates, or any statistics like that (mainly because I’m unable to research the matter from the boat I am writing this on), but from a very personal point of view I can say that the sight of a deadly weapon (or two) on every officer I pass makes me feel quite uncomfortable, and certainly does not make me feel safer.

Consider again, for a moment, the two direct encounters I have had with the Brazilian police since my holiday started: two officers boarded our bus to Boa Vista to inspect it, and around a dozen officers boarded our boat to Porto Velho for the same reason. I’m glad that checks are being done – I’m unsure as to what they’re actually checking for (smuggling, drugs, people trafficking, who knows?) but it’s good to see steps are being taken to prevent the aforementioned crimes (and presumably others). However, both of the vehicles that were stopped were densely packed with both tourists and locals, and both were inspected by officers carrying extra weaponry: assault rifles on the bus, shotguns on the boat.

I am anything but a weapons expert. My knowledge of guns comes mostly from watching MythBusters and reading Andy McNab novels. I have never fired a real gun, and I have had a gun pointed directly at me only once (it’s a situation I hope never to repeat). That said, I am reasonably certain that shotguns and assault rifles are very powerful firearms. I may not know much about weapons, but I’m good with logic, and to me the combination of crowded public transportation and high-powered weaponry with high muzzle velocities just screams “bad idea” in a loud, concerned voice.

(This is to say nothing at all of the police officers themselves – the language barrier was as present as ever, but the officers I met seemed to be acting courteously and professionally, and they made efforts to mime important phrases like “go downstairs” and “I will check your bag” for gringos such as myself. I want to be clear that I am not passing comment on the individual, human officers; rather the firepower their bosses and regulations say they must carry.)

So really, my two cents in a compressed nutshell amount to this: every police officer is armed; I’ve seen it, and I disagree strongly.

I would love to know how the Brazilian public feel towards this matter: they live alongside it every day; I am merely a temporary visitor in the country. Perhaps right now there is a Brazilian tourist visiting the UK, blogging about how uncomfortable he or she feels because our police forces are largely unarmed. Unfortunately it’s unlikely I will find out: there is a substantial language barrier to remind me of my relative ignorance, and when I stumble upon someone with conversational English I stick to more cheerful topics, like being on holiday after finishing volunteer teaching.

You could argue that what I have seen is not a true representation of the “normal” police presence in Brazil, and rather it is the natural and temporary reaction to the recent problems and rioting in Rio de Janeiro and other areas. That may be true in a small part, but I made the same observations when I stayed here over Easter, when the issues in Rio were far from the boiling point they have now reached.

You could say that I’m only seeing a small part of the bigger picture, and that the present structure of the crime/order battle in Brazil nnecessitates the paramilitary police. That may well be true. That’s why I’m not pretending that this post is anything other than my own humble opinion, based solely on what I have seen with my own eyes.

You could also say that I’m overreacting, that I’m naïve, or that I’m any other adjective you choose. That’s absolutely fine. As I said at the start these are my opinions and I don’t purport them to be anything else. I have my views, you have yours, and you have just as much right to yours as I have to mine.

In addition to the Brazilian public (as mentioned above), I’m interested to see how other people at home feel about this. I’ve spoke to other British volunteers here and heard different sides of what is a very interesting discussion. The comment form below this post is yours to use, if you should wish.

These 1200-or-so words have been an anomalous interlude from the standard lightheartedness of this blog, but do not worry: I’m sure normal service will be resumed soon!

Thanks for reading, and please feel free to comment.

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