Fighting police violence in Brazil, one amateur video at a time

Screen grab of a video sent to DefeZap.
Screen grab of a video sent to DefeZap.

In Brazil, police violence is a common occurrence, but these crimes mostly go unpunished. A Brazilian NGO decided to fight this trend by launching a website where contributors can send videos purporting to show police violence. The organisation then verifies the videos before submitting them to the relevant authorities in the hopes of launching legal proceedings.

On February 22, 2016, police officers killed 19-year-old Igor Silva in the Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro. Many newspapers only covered the official version of events: that the teenager was injured during a clash with police and then died en route to the hospital. He was allegedly in possession of a 40-calibre pistol and a bullet-proof vest.

The teen’s family and other residents of the favela contested the official version of the story. They protested that Igor Silva had no involvement in drug trafficking, but their cries were in vain. That might have been the end to the story except that a video was sent to DefeZap, a website aimed at collecting videos of police violence in Brazil. DefeZap was launched by the NGO Meu Rio, which works to promote democracy in Rio de Janeiro. The footage shows the lifeless body of a young man, presented as Igor Silva, being loaded into the back of a police car. In the video, it does not look like the young man is wearing a bullet-proof vest. The article published on DefeZap alleges that this footage proves that the police did not call emergency services or a forensic team, which is required by Brazilian law in the case of serious injury or death.

“People never report these crimes. We want to guarantee everyone access to justice”

Guilherme Pimentel is a coordinator at DefeZap.

We wrote our very first article about the video of Igor Silva. This footage shines a light on the circumstances surrounding the young man’s death. We immediately shared the video with the minister for public affairs and demanded an investigation into the matter. We also informed the homicide division in the national police. We are following the investigation closely and regularly publish updates.

We came up with the idea for this website in 2014 with the help of the Meu Rio network. We wanted a way to investigate and alert authorities to the many amateur videos shared on social media that document crimes. When they are shared online, these videos often prompt an emotional reaction from social media users but they are not usually investigated. Far too often, these videos disappear or are forgotten before they can actually instigate change.

"We hand over these videos to the relevant authorities”

There are six of us working on the DefeZap project – two of whom are journalists. The project is financed by the Open Society Foundation [Editor’s note: a foundation created by American billionaire George Soros that promotes democratic governance and human rights].

We write articles based on the videos that we receive. We try to find out when and where the videos were filmed and to identify the people involved in the incident. Any person living in Rio who wants to help us carry out our investigations can sign up on the site and join our network. Once we have enough information, we share the video with the relevant authorities.

“A form of violence deeply ingrained in Brazilian society”

We start by writing emails to the authorities but we always follow up with a visit to make sure that they have all the information they need. We do everything in our power to make sure that the authorities open an investigation into these matters. We also watch what is going on with the investigation to make sure that the case isn’t hushed up or pushed under the table.

We want these videos to each be investigated. However, we also want to ask serious questions about the huge number of these videos that have emerged. The officers in the videos aren’t the only people at fault. They get their orders from someone. These incidents are often hushed up and that’s because this kind of violence is deeply rooted in Brazilian society. I’d go so far as to say that it is allowed by the state.

"299 submissions in one month"

Defezap also wants to make sure that everyone has access to justice. We connect the victims who send us videos with human rights advocates who can help them access legal help. Usually, these crimes are never reported because people say that it is no use. They don’t know that they have the right to be compensated if they fall victim to police abuse.

We’ve had enormous success since the site was launched. In one month, we got 299 contributions, many of which included videos. We also look into videos that we see circulating on social media.”

In late April, Amnesty International sounded the alarm after an increase in homicides committed by police in the run up to the Rio Olympic Games, which are set for August.

In just one month, the human rights organisation collected data on 11 homicides committed by police using firearms. In 2014, the year that Rio hosted the World Cup, the police killed an estimated 580 people. In 2015, the number actually rose: 645 homicides committed by police officers were reported.

In October 2015, a video filmed by residents in a favela provoked widespread scandal. The footage showed police officers putting a weapon in the hand of a young man who they had just killed.