More than 75 percent of Brazilians over the age of 10 now have mobile phones, which means someone's always watching.
A 30-year-old street vendor was shot in the head by a police officer in São Paulo last month, in a raid targeting sales of pirated DVDs. Carlos Braga was killed after he tried to yank a canister of pepper spray out of a cop's hands as the officer brought down another vendor.
Cell-phone camera footage from several spectators challenged the military police force's original story: that there had been a face-off between the vendors and the police and that the cornered officer had also been wounded by a bullet. After the videos came to light, the police rapidly changed their version of events and detained the officer in question.
Death at police hands is a frequent occurrence in São Paulo and other parts of Brazil. Between 2005 and 2009, an average of one person per day was killed by police forces in São Paulo State—a total of 2,045. Across the entire country, 1,890 people were killed in police operations during 2012, averaging 5 people per day. According to Human Rights Watch, while these deaths are generally reported as the result of shoot-outs with criminals, oftentimes evidence shows that the official version is very misleading.
Marcos Fuchs, an associate director at the Conectas Human Rights organization in São Paulo, estimates about 700 police-related deaths so far this year in the city of São Paulo alone. Despite reforms, the police in Brazil are part of the military, and have a war-like outlook to fighting crime, he says. The mentality might best be summed up by a Brazilian saying: "A good bandit is a dead bandit."
Cell-phone filming became common during the protests that swept through Brazil in June of last year, as activists documented their interactions with the police. In a country where over 75 percent of people over the age of 10 have cell-phones, pressing the record button is becoming an increasingly common response to seeing cops. And it's pulling the curtain back on common cover-up tactics.
Thanks to citizen-shot footage, Brazilians saw that Paulo Batista do Nascimento —supposedly killed in a shoot-out from a stolen car—was actually escorted out of his house, screaming for mercy, by five São Paulo policemen. Cell phone video is also how the public found out that Rio de Janeiro police officers stuffed the body of Cláudia Silva Ferreira, shot in a police encounter, into the trunk of their car—supposedly to take her to the hospital—which then sprung open en route and dragged the corpse for several blocks.
In each of these cases, as with last month's killing, cell-phone footage served to refute the official police versions of how these deaths occurred. The resulting media and public attention has led to investigations in cases that would otherwise be lost in statistics.
None of these investigations have yet led to major policy changes, or even convictions of police officers in many cases. Still, video footage is having a dampening effect on excessive force, says Fuchs. That's why Conectas recently put together a handy guide for protesters filming police violence at protests. "In the past when we didn’t have so many cell phones recording I think they were more aggressive," he says.
Alexandre Ciconello of Amnesty International in Brazil cautions that there are still many important barriers to overcome. Generally speaking, it's still difficult for residents to document police violence. "It's a very powerful tool, but especially in poor communities, people are afraid. If police see you're trying to record, they can abuse you and even kill you. Sometimes they take the device and destroy [it]."
The Igarapé Institute in Rio de Janeiro is currently developing software for police body cameras in Brazil, which would film their interactions with citizens. U.S. cities that have implemented similar cop-cam technologies have seen positive results. The California town of Rialto, for example, saw an 88 percent reduction in complaints filed against officers and a 60 percent drop in use of force by police.