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Brazil President Bolsonaro Anti-Crime Agenda

Brazil President Bolsonaro

What should President Jair Bolsonaro do to advance his anti-crime agenda in Brazil? His tough-on-crime rhetoric has done much to catapult him to the Brazilian presidency. Yet his actual ideas for fighting crime, including giving police and army units greater prerogatives to use force and employing the army in street patrols, appear inadequate at best. Some of his proposals also imply the use of extralegal measures that could bear too much similarity to the abusive practices of President Rodrigo Duterte’s policing policies in the Philippines, to take one undesirable example.

It is true that Brazil’s crime rates are horrible, and a major shakeup in approaches to public safety is needed.

It is also true that Brazil has already tried one of the key ideas recommended below, a variant of community policing, the Pacifying Police Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora, or UPP) program, though it wound up under-resourced in terms of both law enforcement and its associated economic and social programs.

Bolsonaro would be wise to keep in mind the principles that have been learned in creating successful strategies to fight crime around the world. Several are highlighted in a 2017 study, “Securing global cities: Best practices, innovation, and the path ahead,” that I co-authored with former U.S. Army Chief of Staff and Iraq commander General Raymond Odierno. Below, in short, are the core findings of our research, which examined a range of major challenges to the world’s cities, including “normal crime,” transnational criminal organizations and drug cartels, terrorism, and massive disasters. Not all the principles are equally relevant to Brazil’s core problems today, but it is still useful to summarize all of them in case the situation evolves. It is also worth emphasizing that the general concept of community policing must be adapted to the circumstances of a given country; in Brazil, this will admittedly be a challenge, yet it is important not to give up, or to think there is an easier way.


Community policing is foundational in the urban security enterprise. It has helped drive major reductions in crime rates not only in many U.S. cities, but also in other countries from Latin America to Europe and beyond. It is also crucial in the fight against transnational crime and terrorism, largely for the intelligence it can provide when communities feel engaged in helping ensure their own safety. The concept includes methods such as: decentralized organization of police with delegation of authority; stable assignments of officers in certain beats and neighborhoods, to foster relationships and communications; an emphasis on crime prevention rather than response (for example, heavy patrolling in places and at times when crime is otherwise most likely to occur); analytics designed to identify and highlight patterns of crime, allowing for targeted strategies at the local level to address high-risk areas; and encouragement of assistance from the broader community, including local businesses, in identifying dangers as well as solutions to crime. Other simple tactical innovations have helped too, such as enhancing confidence and safety in public places like parks. Close cooperation between police and prosecutors is also important for ensuring that the latter are invested in cases, and that the former understand what kinds of evidence will hold up in court. Finally, sentencing as well as prison conditions need to be designed with the goal of lowering future crime rates. Ultimately, community policing and related activities need to shore up the rule of law and citizen security as preeminent concerns.

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