Understanding Police Use of Force in Rio de Janeiro


photo 9  policeforce
Policemen chat during their break at Rocinha favela.
Photo credit: 
Beatriz Magaloni


Principal Investigator
Senior Fellow
  • Professor, Political Science
Veriene Melo
Program Associate, Program on Poverty and Governance
Jarillo hs2
PovGov Postdoctoral Fellow, CDDRL


In 2008, Rio de Janeiro's government introduced an unprecedented security policy called “pacification,” a police strategy with full support from the federal government that aims to improve the overall levels of security in the city and retake areas previously dominated by criminal organizations. Based on this new model of policing - that takes an approach on community and proximity policing initiatives – “Pacifying Police Units" (UPPs) are implemented in different favelas (slums) of the city with 24/7 police patrolling and monitoring. Our project aims to assess the role of the pacification in reducing criminality and violence levels in the city, shedding light on the importance of investing efforts for police reform. Additionally, we hope to add to the existent literature on criminal violence, police violence, and police reform initiatives in violent and impoverished communities and urban areas in international contexts. In efforts to improve the entire police force based on this new approach, through the results of our research project, Rio's Secretary of Security (SESEG) hopes to further understand the causes of police violence and abusive use of force in the city. 


The Stanford International Violence and Crime Lab has established cooperation agreements with the Laboratory for the Analysis of Criminal Violence (LAV) at the State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) and the Secretary of Public Security of Rio de Janeiro (SESEG) to conduct a project that aims to analyze the institutional, contextual, and individual factors leading to the use of lethal force by the Military State Police of Rio de Janeiro (PMERJ).


The project – made possible partially thanks to a grant from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)– entailed the collection and analysis of a survey to over 5,000 officers from PMERJ (including 70 commanders), which represents around 20% of the entire corporation staff acting in Rio’s metropolitan area. The survey was applied to police officers both from UPPs and regular battalions, as well as specialized unites, including BOPE. Our team used survey experiments in the study with the goal to better understand:

  1. cultural values associated with the use of lethal force among police officers;
  2. actual use of force by different police units and individual police officers;
  3. the influence of individual, contextual, and institutional characteristics on such behavior; and finally,
  4. the dimensions of police preparedness and training in the use of force, including use of lethal and non-lethal weapons, and its impact on police behavior.


An important initial finding suggests that exposure to violence in childhood or adolescence plays a role in influencing the degree in the actual use of force by police officers in their professional career; the study show that there is a strong correlation between the hostile environment that police officers grow up in and violent behavior later in life. The study also revealed high levels of stress among police officers. The literature on police use of force highlights that exposition to the dangers entailed by the job on a daily basis can foster stress and anxiety (and that can, consequently, increase levels in the use of force). In addition, the study pointed out to other relevant individual variables that affect violence, including gender, religion, and frequency of attendance to religious ceremonies. Finally, the study highlighted a series of institutional variables – including trajectories within the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro, monetary and non-monetary incentives, and the style and philosophy of a unit’s commanding officer – that shape use of force. All our findings are robust to unit-fixed effects and control for the criminal environment that officers confront in their daily routines. The results of the study have been presented to the Secretariat of Security and the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro, and are likely going to have an impact in the design of polices to better track police officers’ individual trajectories with use of force, give improved psychological support to officers to reduce incidence of stress and mental illness, and better design institutional incentives to discourage excessive use of force. Ultimately, by shedding light on some of the various factors that lead to the use of force among police officers in Rio and exploring their foundations, we hope to offer concrete policy suggestions that can support the creation of strategies aimed at reducing PMERJ’s use of force.