Policing the police in Rio

smart policeI always thought the police were the good guys when I was a kid. They are the people you call when you are in trouble – right?

Of course this naïve view of the world altered as my understanding of the social context of much of the world expanded, and it was probably in my teens when I started to question why rappers often referred to the police as pigs.

In places like Rio de Janeiro – more specifically in poorer parts of the city where corrupt authorities, lawless gangs and ordinary citizens collide, police mistrust is an accepted daily reality.

The tragic consequences of these complex relationships have been well documented and popularised globally in films such as elite squad and City of God and in the plethora of pre-World Cup news coverage.

But beyond the hype – there are people exploring real solutions to the entrenched and difficult problem of excessive violence in poor neighbourhoods, and harnessing simple technologies that are an inevitable part of our future to tackle them.

The Igarapé Institute is one such example. Having already worked with Google to create an award-winning mapping arms data (MAD) visualisation tool that tracks global imports and exports of guns, they are currently collaborating with police forces in Rio de Janeiro, Nairobi and Cape Town to pilot a project called ‘smart policing’.

Smart policing quite simply involves police officers wearing smartphones with an app that records their every movement while they are out on patrol. It aims to increase transparency, police protection and accountability.

If a police officer spots trouble, s/he can send a signal back to HQ to call for help. Likewise, ordinary people that often unfairly get caught up in acts of police brutality can feel protected by the evidence that the mobile phone recordings provide.

I went out on a patrol in a pacified favela (read more on pacification) where the project is being piloted to see how it works for the BBC World Service technology programme, Click.

While on patrol, it struck me how often we speak in terms of ‘police and the people’ as if the police are not also the people, and these two homogenous sets of species are somehow motivated by different things.

Particularly in places like Rio, the police force is comprised of people who earn a modest living and operate in very difficult and dangerous settings. Driven by fear and tempted by opportunities to abuse their limited powers, you can see how frequent clashes between the authorities and people can happen.

In favelas built on the hills of a city, there are no cars and no CCTV cameras, so when bad things happen; no one ever seems to know what really went down. It is only in the now-pacified favelas that constructive and long-term solutions to tackling police brutality can really be tested.

While there are concerns that smart policing is tantamount to surveillance, it’s hoped that ‘policing the police’ through filming their activity will ultimately increase trust and transparency, and help blur those lines for the better between the police and the people.

Listen to the full report on smartpolicing on the BBC World Service: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p022x0fc

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