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Smarter Policing: Tracking the Influence of New Information Technology in Rio de Janeiro


Denyer Willis, Graham; Muggah, Robert; Kosslyn, Justin; and Felipe Leusin. “Smarter Policing: Tracking the Influence of New Information Technology in Rio de Janeiro” Igarapé Institute, Strategic Note 10 (2013): 1–15. Print.

p.1: Technological advancements are changing the architecture of police-society relations around the world. New modes of oversight, whether applied by public security entities or citizens, are dramatically transforming the way policing is conducted. This is especially the case in digitally connected cities in the North and South. Surprisingly little is known, however, about how technology can be used to drive reform in police institutions including in Rio de Janeiro, where the relationships between police and residents are characterized by mistrust. A key objective of the Smart Policing project, a partnership of the Igarapé Institute and the Policia Militar do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (PMERJ), is to explore ways to enhance police accountability through technology. The following Strategic Note considers how the recently installed pacification police units (Unidades de Policia Pacificadora or UPP) are using technology to recapture urban territory from drug trafficking groups while simultaneously expanding trust and reciprocity with citizens. It examines how technological innovations at the street level, including mobile phone applications, can potentially strengthen the integrity of police work and the social contract. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.1: Graham Denyer Willis is a senior researcher associate with the Igarapé Institute. Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute and Principal of the SecDev Group. Justin Kosslyn is Product Manager at Google Ideas and holds an independent appointment as a research associate at Igarapé Institute. Mr. Kosslyn’s contribution to this report was made in his personal capacities and does not reflect the views of his employer. Felipe Leusin is a research associate at the Igarapé Institute. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.2: The recent experiences of Rio de Janeiro are a case in point: the city is undergoing an unprecedented shift in public security policy. Specifically, a new pacification program appears to be making a pronounced impact on diminishing violence in key parts of the city. In 2008, the state of Rio de Janeiro, in conjunction with the city and with the Military Police (PMERJ), created the Unidades de Policia Pacificadora (UPP). The UPP seeks to retake urban spaces from the heavily armed domination of drug trafficking organizations that have controlled many of the poorer communities in the city for decades -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.2: Rio de Janeiro is witnessing a dramatic increase in Internet penetration and is among one of the top consumers of social media in the world. While a digital divide persists, access to digital technologies is also increasingly prominent in lower income neighborhoods and within police institutions. The use of technology promises to decisively transform the ways in which residents and police communicate and collaborate. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.3: This Strategic Note considers some of the implications of this technological revolution for police reform in Rio de Janeiro. It draws on field research under taken by the Igarapé Institute between November 2012 and July 2013 with UPP units in selected favelas of Rio de Janeiro. The paper features initial observations related to the current use of technology by the UPP and also considers how technological innovation can potentially enhance police-community relations. Key findings are that:

  • While ICTs are increasingly prominent amongst the UPP and examples of innovation are emerging, their present application is for most part decentralized, fragmented and individualistic;
  • There is support among police associated with the UPP for the use of ICTs to improve police accountability in cases of malfeasance and for managing police acquittal in cases of spurious allegations;
  • The introduction of ICTs for police in contexts such as Rio de Janeiro must be sensitive to the real ground-level conditions of street policing including their constraints and the ethically complex demands of their daily work.

-- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.4: A particular focus of the Igarapé Institute research team was on assessing the types of ICTs used by police and how police employed technology in practice. A special consideration related to the ways in which ICT tools were used as part of a “formal” purposive strategy by the police, or more “informally” at the individual level. A goal of this research was to better understand the everyday use of technology as, inter alia, a means of communication, a mechanism to organize, analyze and interpret data, a tool to satisfy personal preferences or a critical device to ensure more streamlined institutional accountability. The research is also being used to inform the development of new ICTs by the Igarapé Institute and the UPP to enhance police accountability and performance. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.5: While its goals are variously defined, Rio de Janeiro’s UPP intervention is intended to re-assert state control over territory ostensibly controlled by non-state armed groups. In theory, the UPP first clears and occupies areas, then stabilizes and holds them, and is followed by social and economic reconstruction led by a combination of public and private entities. It was launched in 2008 and has expanded across the city, including in areas featuring critical infrastructure for the upcoming 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. The initiative has been the subject of intense debate and scrutiny, though public opinion continues to remain generally favorable. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.5: The UPP is about more than just occupying and stabilizing so-called under-governed spaces, as formidable an enterprise as this may sound. Indeed, it represents a calculated effort to dramatically reform the doctrine of policing and ultimately the behavior and attitudes of the PMERJ themselves. Together with the Rio de Janeiro State Public Security Secretary, PMERJ commanders have devised a fundamentally new community-based approach to policing designed to strengthen the bonds of trust and reciprocity between citizens and the newly introduced UPP. This new model of policing focuses on prevention and seeks to decrease the distance between citizens and the state via “proximity policing” and community engagement programs, which include everything from community meetings to ballet classes. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.5: One of the central objectives of the UPP is to decrease the distance –physical and social– between Brazilian citizens and their police force. In practical terms, this requires that policing pivots away from car-based patrols to patrolling the street on foot. It implies more patrols, greater visibility of the police within communities, and significant numbers of police operating in spaces historically considered violent and governed by gangs. Unusually, UPP commanders and officers may also seek to establish trust with local residents by handing out their emails and telephone numbers, encouraging residents to contact them personally and thus reducing the communication barriers between them. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.6: With the support of the private sector and political operators, the number of UPP units has grown rapidly. As of July 2013, there were some 32 UPP units in the city, providing security services to at least 370,000 residents. Most of the UPP interventions are concentrated primarily in the city center as well as the wealthier neighborhoods of the south zone. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.6: There is of course some skepticism and concern about the UPP project. On the one hand, it is sometimes seen as an invasive enterprise that fur ther stigmatizes poorer communities. While there is general support for the UPP in many favelas, others resist the model owing to concerns that some in the PMERJ are still corrupt, violent and implicated in the drug trade. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.6: What is more, since the UPP is not focused on drugs per se, but rather improving personal security, critics argue that it is only a temporary solution since drug trafficking groups continue to exert influence over communities. Not withstanding fears that the policy could implode, there is general consensus that the UPP project holds promise, and that it has improved public security practice substantially. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.6: The UPP project also coincides with a period of massive technological change in Brazil. New uses of technology, such as the City of Rio de Janeiro’s Operations Center and the Rio de Janeiro State Command and Control Center, integrate hundreds of video cameras, environment and temperature monitors, traffic patterns and many other tools in an effort to centralize and respond more effectively to demands and shocks in the city. They also coordinate public services such as federal and state police, fire, ambulances, traffic engineers, as responders to real or potential crises, especially surrounding the upcoming hosting of the World Cup and the Olympics. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.7: Given the sheer spatial and social heterogeneity of Rio de Janeiro it is hardly surprising that the UPP experience is diverse and dynamic. Owing to their distinct histories and experiences, each neighborhood presents diverse oppor tunities and challenges for newly-installed UPPs. In some communities, UPP interventions have been decidedly unproblematic and faced little obstruction. In others, attempts by the UPP to arrest suspects have lead massive forms of – occasionally violent – resistance. Not surprisingly, each UPP is also distinct, whether a function of the number of police assigned to each unit, the numbers of police deployed on patrols, the patterns of patrolling applied, or the types of weaponry and defensive equipment used. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.7: Despite these variations across UPP sites, virtually all of them struggle to engage with ICTs in a coherent way. A structural challenge is the general unreliability of existing communications infrastructure. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.7: As a result, the tendency among officers is toward more informal and personalized forms of interaction rather than formal and secure communications. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.8: As a result, even the most basic policing relies heavily on individual creativity and ingenuity. And as commendable as this may be, the absence of an adequate technological and communications infrastructure has negative repercussions. At a minimum, police are physically more at risk and thus tentative in their policing strategies. An unintended consequence is that police are also provided with more discretionary space – which is due to (and exacerbates) limited, supervision and oversight. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.9: During most visits to UPP sites, Igarapé Institute researchers found that the Cecoco map was not working owing to glitches in the system or limited connectivity. Police frequently commented on their unreliability, ironically using it as yet another hard surface on which to draft their repor ts by hand. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.9: A more promising technological initiative is the introduction of digitally enhanced oversight in selected UPP areas. In Rocinha, a favela with an estimated 120,000 residents, concerns with continued drug violence persisted in spite of the installation of a UPP. To improve monitoring, the Public Security Secretary established 80 high definition cameras with 24-hour capacity. With their high-powered and high-resolution zoom, these cameras are spread throughout Rocinha and also draw on face recognition technology. The images from these cameras (see Figure 3) are displayed on 12 flat panel televisions that broadcast ten video feeds each. 30 Each of these cameras is visible from another in order to prevent vandalism. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.10: More positively, Rio de Janeiro´s residents are today better prepared than ever to monitor police behavior and publicize violations and abuses on social networks, including Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and other platforms. Mass protests in Brazil in June 2013 underlined the ways in which new media was used to broadcast police brutality, par ticularly in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. To be sure, the filming of police, whether by mobile phones or public security cameras, decreases their discretionary space, potentially constraining their decision to resort to repression or other abusive behavior. A related challenge is that short video clips are often subjected to selective editing that can portray an ambiguous situation (involving police overuse of force) in the worst possible light. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.10: A particularly tricky issue relates to the spontaneous recording of police behavior – by citizens or the police themselves. Indeed, most video recorded by citizens of police tends to be partial and poor quality. Precisely what may have occurred before and after a violent incident advertised on a YouTube video is often excluded. While such videos can offer important insights that strengthen state-citizen accountability, they may also obscure more than they reveal or tell a one-sided story. A widely publicized YouTube video of UPP officers of Mangueira is illustrative. The four minute clip begins in the middle of what appears to be a mob confronting police. The police are outnumbered and look disorganized in the face of shouting from residents about violence, inviting speculation from the viewer. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.11: Specifically, police recording of video and audio using ICTs may offer a novel way of enhancing accountability while also strengthening relations with communities. Indeed, this is already occurring in North America, where body worn cameras (BWC) have star ted to make operational inroads. Most of these BWC innovations are affixed to the head, glasses or vests and are closed circuit. They do not benefit from smartphone based platforms that allow significant secondary innovations that may be of particular value for policing violent environments like Rio de Janeiro. One such innovation is the ability to detect when a phone goes from vertical to horizontal, thus indicating and sending an automatic digital alarm of a potentially wounded user of the device. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.11: On the one hand, the autonomous recording of routine police patrols could serve both as a protective device for police from erroneous or murky allegations. Such data could be automatically and remotely uploaded to secure servers for review at a later date, and particularly in response to citizen complaints. During acute emergencies, a live stream of video and audio is also feasible, allowing superiors to remotely observe a particularly important case minute by minute. On the other hand, these recordings could audit police behavior in such a way as to curb violent behavior. In other words, video could play a role in the pacification of police themselves, a stated goal of the UPP program. These twofold benefits could have distinctly positive outcomes for police behavior, accountability and citizen trust in police over the long run. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.12: Notwithstanding the opportunities of video and audio oversight, a number of major obstacles remain. From an ethical perspective, the prospect of using cameras to record daily activity present issues associated with the protection of privacy – both that of police and of citizens. Meanwhile, from a sociological perspective, there are also concerns about how communities will react to being monitored by “big brother”, particularly given the historical reputation and legacy of military police forces in Brazil, and Rio in particular. And while some of these anxieties can be alleviated through deploying face-blurring techniques or education campaigns, they will persist regardless, and for good reason. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.12: Other challenges are distinctly contextual and institutional. For example, a commander from one of the UPPs pointedout one one of the potential side effects of autonomous police oversight. In Rio de Janeiro, the risk of confrontations between police and armed groups is very real. Patrols in cramped back alleys and dense residential blocks are pursued in the knowledge that an attack could occur at any moment. It does not compare to the day-to-day operations of police forces in otherwise stable settings. As such, the addition of another layer of scrutiny could lead to counter-productive adaptation. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.12: Although the aim of video and audio oversight would be to encourage police to be diligent and balanced in their use and escalation of force, the potential for police to overcompensate and avoid problem areas altogether is very real. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.12: A critical issue, and one that will be addressed in future Strategic Notes focused on the smart policing project, is how recorded video and audio data collected from front-line police should be managed and evaluated. The politics and policies of data management, access to records and control over wayward police should not be taken lightly, particularly since it is of direct concern for building citizen trust when troublesome incidents come to light. A more effective approach could potentially include a “graded” or “sequential” review of the data. Specifically, for serious incidents, a complete and thorough review could be under taken in institutional channels by agencies like internal affairs or with the creation of a specific oversight committee. In less serious incidents, cases could be reviewed by the local UPP commander and in partnership with local oversight committee. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014

p.13: within the PMERJ and also the public secretary for security´s office are a corpus of senior personnel who are actively exploring new ways of making policing more effective, secure and accountable to the public. They are fostering partnerships with technology companies and research groups to test out new tools. They are exploring how to create more appropriate metrics for crime prevention, since traditonal police metrics advanced by the COMSTAT model (advanced in the United States) only measures police responses to crime. -- Highlighted apr 26, 2014