Modelo Policial, Modelo Policial, Police

Police and racism in Brazil: elements for thinking about change

Jacqueline Sinhoretto, sociologist, professor of the Department of Sociology of the Federal University of São Carlos (Brazil), researcher of the INCT-InEAC and CNPq, coordinator of the Study Group on Violence and Conflict Management (GEVAC-UFSCar)

In the last decade, at least two factors have contributed to bringing the issue of racism in policing to the forefront. Worldwide, the effects of incarceration and police brutality directed at racially marked groups have accumulated, leading civil society to turn its criticism to the policing model shaped by the anti-terror doctrine. This doctrine brought back to the field of internal security categories, procedures, and technologies forged for war on the enemy, reinforcing the militarization of policing. The second factor was the emergence of a black antiracist thought dedicated to thinking about the very mechanisms of racism in the police, criminal justice, and prisons.

The impact of these two factors in Brazil was the object of a network research I coordinated over three years (Sinhoretto, 2021), with data collection in four Brazilian states: São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Grande do Sul, and the Federal District. It is the results of this research effort that I present below.   

We collected and analyzed data on racial inequalities produced by policing in approaches, flagrant arrests, and in deaths committed in police actions. The results are conclusive in proving that police officers associate black people more with «suspicious» attitudes, that the number of black people arrested in the act is much higher (even considering the number of whites and blacks in the general population) and that black people are much more frequent targets of lethal use of force. The mathematical chance of a black person being the target of a legal or illegal punitive action by the police is 3 times greater than the chance of a white person receiving the same treatment. Depending on the place, the chance of black people being killed can be up to six times higher.

This is the picture obtained through official data in those states that publish their statistics with information on color/race because most of them do not even do this follow-up, which makes it difficult to discuss the issue with objective criteria and informed comparisons.

In general, the layman interprets this data as an indicator that black people commit more crimes, so the police stop and arrest them more often. This is not supported by data when the study is deepened. The most violent crimes occur in different areas and at different times than the most violent police actions. In other words, looking at the data with which the police themselves carry out their planning, it is not possible to deduce that police violence is a necessary response to criminal violence. It is a police action decision about the level of force they will use against the «suspicious» attitude. This is what dozens of police officers explained to the researchers about what policing practice is like.

So, should we conclude that police officers are racist because it is their decision to stop a person or to use lethal force in an occurrence, and they make that decision three times as easily when they see a black person? Yes and no at the same time. The policemen themselves explain that a good part of their work is based on actively looking for suspicious attitudes, in work described as crime prevention. When they explain what these attitudes are, the great majority of policemen describe body characteristics, clothing, gestures, the way they walk and look, and even the way they cut their hair. In this way, it is not impersonal attitudes that they are looking for, but physical types considered to be prone to crime. In other words, police work depends fundamentally on stereotypes about the body and the physical type, which gives rise to racism.

Before concluding that bad cops are to blame, it is necessary to question what police organizations do to avoid this discriminatory look by security professionals reproduces racism in Brazilian society. Very little. The preparatory courses do not directly discuss the perverse effects of racial filtering, which range from the systemic embarrassment of black people in their daily commuting, the production of constant fear of being a victim of police violence, the systematic distrust in the police-society relationship, to the impunity of white people who commit crimes without becoming the target of police surveillance. In São Paulo, for example, the majority of those arrested for homicide are white – who are not usually seen as suspects.

Police do not teach other methods of how to do preventive work without police officers having to use looking at the body as the sole basis of their decision to intervene. Even the data management technology employed in police action today is based on identifying suspicious bodies and faces and singling them out from the crowd. Criminological maps, cameras, tablets, and cell phones are technological supports to the same old method of «recognizing» the marks of the criminal mind on the body (Sinhoretto et al, 2022). The difference between what was done in the time of the theories of scientific racism is that today’s technological apparatuses cost much more money to the public coffers.

The black policemen heard by the research know that the method is discriminatory and violent. They tell of situations in which they are stopped in traffic checks driving cars that their salaries can buy, but which are not common in the social classes they come from. They tell of their fear of situations in which their colleagues on duty may consider it suspicious that blacks are driving nice cars. The policemen born in the peripheries also point out the mistake of thinking that clothing defines criminal behavior since the youth of the peripheries dress very similarly. One policewoman told how she feels when her colleagues decide to stop people because of the clothes they are wearing because those «marked» clothes are also those worn by her brothers and cousins, young black men from the suburbs.

The officers also affirm their pride in participating in a corporation that employs black professionals and favors their social ascension, through public competitive civil service exams. For black professionals who become area commanders, who have the opportunity to study, to participate in spaces of public deliberation, the police profession was the sure way to obtain respect and a better life for their families. How could a black policeman admit, without mediation, that this corporation that welcomed and encouraged him reproduces racism?

Complex problems have no simple answers. The police today are an active part of the country’s politics, they want to leave the position of those who only follow orders to be the ones responsible for deciding the directions of society. They are today a force with the power to influence politics, with thousands of candidates throughout the country. They are not passive in the face of the social issues of our time.

Police officers and policemen have a role in the historical injustice that produces racism in the ways that policing is done. It is time to seriously discuss the issue, in the contents of training, the standards of policing, racial profiling, and the ways of measuring the success of police action. Time to think about the role of the armed arm that stifles the social issue. The fact that racism is systemic cannot justify the present generation’s omission to defeat it.  


SINHORETTO, J. (ED.). Policiamento ostensivo e relações racias: estudo comparado sobre formas contemporâneas de controle do crime. Rio de Janeiro: Autografia, 2021.

SINHORETTO, J.; CEDRO, A.; MACEDO, H. New Technologies and Racism in Ostensive Policing in São Paulo. Dilemas – Journal of Conflict Studies and Social Control, v. 15, n. 3, p. 803-826, 2 Sep. 2022.

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