By Andrew Willis, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Military police in Rio are gradually replacing their rifles with non-lethal weapons such as electro-shock taser guns, according to an announcement by the government of Rio de Janeiro State last week. The move will mainly affect police on radio-patrol missions in pacified favelas.
“In total, 273 guns have already been replaced with tasers, shock weapons used to immobilize suspects that take a threatening stance during police operations,” said a government statement Thursday, November 8th.
“The department of security has already distributed 1,265 tasers that emit a shock of 50,000 volts against the human body, but with a low intensity of 0.0036 amps,” continued the statement.
The government hopes to eventually limit the use of assault riffles and weapons to special police units. Reaction to the move away from rifles and other high-caliber guns has been mixed.
“The initiative […] is bold and valid. This shows that the state government is serious about changing the policing model,” Almir de Oliveira Junior, director of state policies, institutions and democracy with the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA), told The Rio Times.
“If pacification has been successful in a particular location, then there is no need to carry heavy weapons that are more appropriate to the military than to the police.” Oliveira added, however, that even tasers can kill if used incorrectly.
Fernando Belo, a retired military police colonel and president of the Officers Club of Rio, criticized the measure because of the way it was announced. Belo fears that criminals, especially those who are still heavily armed, could take advantage of the information.
“The idea of gradually retiring the rifle is good, but it should have been done privately […] We are giving ammunition to the criminals,” he said after the government’s announcement, according to local media.
The initiative comes amid the government’s ongoing favela pacification program, launched in 2008. While not without its controversies, the program has garnered considerable support, with studies showing a marked decline in violent killings within the targeted Rio communities.
At the head of the state’s program is the Secretary of Security José Mariano Beltrame, who is now one of the most recognized public figures in Brazil. Beltrame has repeatedly spoken out against the unnecessary use of large caliber weapons, claiming that their indiscriminate use merely puts the city on a path towards war.
However many residents in the city’s favelas are reluctant to see the police hang up their rifles just yet, despite the periodic reports of police abuses and heavy-handedness. “The stun-guns only work at short distance. So they may be suitable for protecting tourists on the beach, but not in the communities throughout Rio,” said Eualdo, a taxi driver and favela resident in Rio’s Zona Norte.
“We’ve seen a lot of improvements in recent years, thanks to the presence of armed police.” he explains. The government’s pacification program marks its fourth year in operation this week.