SÃO PAULO — São Paulo military police have arrested an officer who was caught on camera this week firing at two teenage suspects who had fallen to the ground from a stolen motorcycle following a dangerous pursuit through the streets of Brazil’s biggest city.
It was meant to be a week when police in São Paulo State celebrated new figures that showed the lowest number of homicides on record, but the shocking end to a police chase in the south of São Paulo city — caught live from TV helicopters — quickly put paid to that.
Footage from the chase, which was broadcast live on the channels TV Bandeirantes and Record, shows a military police officer firing at and wounding the two teenagers, aged 16 and 17, at near-point-blank range after the pursuit ends abruptly.
As the chase weaved through traffic, the video shows the 16-year-old passenger throwing his helmet at the officer, who responds by shooting at the pair, causing the motorbike to crash and the men to fall to the ground.
Another shot is fired as the officer approaches, and then at least two more flashes of gunfire are seen after the officer comes within touching distance of the pair.
Police officials said that the two men had ignored officers’ commands to stop after they were found on a stolen motorcycle, sparking the pursuit.
A police investigation will now assess whether this was an excessive use of force, which will involve a close evaluation of the footage that was broadcast on television.
It is unclear whether either of the two men, one of whom was taken to a hospital with serious injuries, had fired at police.
This will form part of the investigation, but the mother of the 16-year-old who was traveling on the back of the motorcycle told the Brazilian news portal G1 that it was “clear” that her son had not exchanged fire with the police office.
“We’re going to investigate the case,” Alexandre de Moraes, the São Paulo state secretary for public security, said in remarks quoted by the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper.
“But from the images we can also see serious irregularities. Even if the criminals had fired, they were on the ground when police fired those two rounds.”
Ivan Marques, director at Sou Da Paz, a São Paulo-based anti-violence non-governmental organization, said that the investigation must focus on why training had not been followed.
“While we applaud the authorities for swiftly detaining and removing the officer in question from duty, the big question is why he apparently failed to implement a key part of his training regarding the preservation of life,” he said.
“Police are responsible for the lives of everyone around them — criminal or not.”
“Firing at someone who has thrown a helmet at you does not fall under these guidelines,” Marques added.
The shocking episode came as it was reported that overall homicides across São Paulo state — Brazil’s most populous — fell to their lowest level on record for the month of May.
According to official figures, which count incidents rather than the number of people murdered, there were 292 cases in May 2015, down from 1,101 in May 2001, when records were first published.
But the number of deaths caused by military police in São Paulo state surged to a 12-year high in the first quarter of 2015, with the state recording 185 killings. Four officers were killed in the line of duty during the same period.
Overall in 2014, on-duty military police killed over 700 people in São Paulo state.
Security officials, commenting on the first-quarter figures, said that police officers “act strictly within the limits of the law,” and that “unlawful deaths are investigated rigorously and end with the officers charged with the crime being punished.”
But studies in other regions have shown that more than 99 percent of cases are thrown out by military police prosecutors — and specialists say that São Paulo is no different.
“If you so regularly absolve police officers of crimes, even when they were clearly in the wrong, it generates a sense of impunity and encourages the use of indiscriminate force, even revenge attacks,” Marques said.
“Every time an officer pulls a trigger, they must be held accountable for their actions and in complete transparency.”
Police argue that the increase in killings in their operations is a response to more aggressive and heavily armed criminals.
In the five years between 2009 and 2013, police across Brazil killed 11,197 people, or six people every day, a study by the Brazilian Forum of Public Safety found.
It compared the war zone-like figures to the United States, where police officers had killed the same number over a timespan of some 30 years.
The study also revealed that black people were 30.5 percent more likely to be killed.
With upwards of 18 million guns circulating across Brazil, more than half of them unregistered and illicit, police are regularly confronted with dangerous situations.
But experts say that despite officers getting world-class training in Brazil, a culture of war among certain forces means that officers all too often take the law into their own hands, with deadly consequences.
Public safety advocates argue that only a drastic change in the engrained culture of impunity and of being at war with the population can change the situation.