By Jay Forte, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Certain units of the Rio de Janeiro Military Police (PMRJ) received authorization from the State Secretary of Public Security, José Mariano Beltrame, to wear masks, or the balaclava, in specific operations such as hostage rescue and events such as demonstrations. As O Globo reports, the face-masks were banned in Rio for the last twenty years because it hindered the identification of police.
According to Beltrame, the resolution signed by him has limited the use of the masks as personal protective equipment. “It is necessary equipment for certain police activities, and their use should be justified by the unit commander. It may not be a device that simply hides someone’s face.”
The resolution, published on Friday (August 28th), authorizes the use the masks as personal protective equipment to Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE, Special Operations), and the Polícia de Choque (Shock Police) among others.
For Mrs. Martha Rocha (PSD), chairman of the Public Safety Commission of ALERJ, the resolution goes against what was agreed in 2013, when the House passed a law prohibiting the wearing of masks during protests. “I think the Secretary should reflect better on the resolution because it does not seem consistent with his police pacifying project [UPP], or with the community policing. He is backing out of a decision made twenty years ago”, referring to another resolution, established in 1995.
Congressman Marcelo Freixo (PSOL), president of the Human Rights Commission of ALERJ, considered the announcement a setback in state security. “We want a well-prepared and well-paid police. But I do not see where anonymity, to not identify the police, can contribute to security. […] And if you live in the conflict region, the police have to be replaced, for their own safety.”
According to a public security expert and former BOPE captain Paulo Storani, the mask has the function of protecting the identity of the military police, but also to decrease the exposure of the face and neck. “Often a shooting fragments may, due to the proximity of the officers or members of a tactical intervention troop, reaches or enters the clothes policeman. Then the balaclava has a protective function.”
To Storani, what led to the security resolution is the peculiarities of the fighting in Rio de Janeiro, and that sometimes the officer lives in the neighborhood where the operation is taking place. “In such cases, the use of balaclava to protect the identity of the police officer who lives in the neighborhood it is necessary, because often the police know the area you are working. So, you need the knowledge of police.”
In a statement, Amnesty International said it was not against the use of the resource to protect the lives and ensure the safety of agents. The organization, however, points out that there must be some way to identify the police, either by name or by the use of alphanumeric code.
The statement read, “Brazil and Rio de Janeiro have a history of human rights violations by police officers,” it said. “And often one of the obstacles to the accountability of police officers involved in such violations is the difficulty in identifying them individually.” Yet also added that the balaclava is used in countries like the United States and England.
In 2014, on average six people died each day in Brazil through involvement of the military police, totaling in 2,368 deaths in 22 states according to data collected by G1 from the Secretaries of Public Security. The states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro lead the statistics with the most deaths.
On the other hand, 132 policemen died in 2014 while working, with Bahia and Mato Grosso registering the most police deaths and in Rio de Janeiro, sixteen military police died in service in 2014. By comparison in the United States, which has a population fifty percent larger than Brazil, a police organization reported 134 deaths during the line of duty.