Brazilian police on YouTube blur the line between duty and self-promotion

·6-min read

Brazilian police officers have turned to social media networks like YouTube, TikTok and Instagram to share videos of their work, often drawing millions of viewers to what they portray as heroic efforts at fighting organised crime. But our Observer says this trend is part of a "vicious cycle" of violence and an increase in rightwing posturing among police and in Brazilian society.

"The team is really foaming at the mouth, we want to catch him," says Carlos Alberto da Cunha, commissioner of the São Paulo Civil Police force. He's in his car, in civilian clothes, as he films himself explaining that day's operation. The mission is to arrest Jagunço, a man accused of running a criminal organisation called Primeiro Comando da Capital (PCC, or "First Command of the Capital").

"We think he has more than 50 homicides to his name," da Cunha says.

The operation is played out in three videos of 11, 24, and 18 minutes, posted in May of 2020. Between the three of them, they've now accumulated more than 25 million views. They're the biggest hits to date on da Cunha's YouTube channel, which has more than 3.6 million followers and hundreds of similar videos.

Da Cunha, wearing a bulletproof vest displaying a skull and crossbones, addresses the camera as he prepares to make the arrest: "I'll keep you posted on what's going on."

When he's moving in, a camera on his right shoulder captures the moment.

"You know who I am? Do you know who I am? Who am I?" da Cunha asks.

"Da Cunha!" Jagunço answers.

When the second camera is too far away, da Cunha acts as director: "Come and film here," he says, while asking Jagunço, his face blurred, some questions.

Da Cunha publishes nearly three videos a week. Critics have accused him of staging his videos. Some members of the police told newspaper Folha de S. Paulo in September 2021 that the video of Jagunço's arrest was all an act.

Sometimes, da Cunha appears alone, like in this photo published on Instagram last July. Gun in hand in a São Paulo neighbourhood known to have high rates of drug consumption. No official police operation was underway at the time.

In August 2021, the commissioner was put under investigation for charges of illicit profit from the monetisation of official police operation videos.

Online investigative outlet, The Intercept Brasil, also looked into the phenomenon of police videos. It referred to a video posted in October by YouTuber Danilo Snider, who hosts a video podcast that often features police and criminal justice topics.

Viewed more than 100,000 times, the video shows a Brazilian civil police officer, Marcio Kenji, remembering a 2017 operation in São Paulo in which ten men suspected of being burglars were killed.

"Ten guys?" Snider asked. "Ten, ten in the [body] bag," Kenji answers casually.

Another video posted on Snider's channel, also spotted by Intercept Brasil, is titled "Who has killed more?". The video shows a conversation between two members of law enforcement, who are joking and laughing.

"Sergeant, you're up to over 100? You're up to triple digits?" the officer asks.

"Find someone who's knocked down more than half as many as I have..." the sergeant replies. The tone matches the video's caption and podcast slogan: "Here we talk about everything in a relaxed and fun way."

'These police officers who use social networks to promote themselves have a very conservative discourse'

Alexandre Pereira da Rocha is a doctor of social sciences and member of the Brazilian Forum of Public Security (FBSP), an NGO that documents public security policies and violence committed by law enforcement. He says these "police influencers" contribute to a narrative that shows the police as "combative" and justifies violence in law enforcement.

In the case of Brazil, the problem I see is that these police officers who use social networks to promote themselves have a very conservative discourse. That's to say, a discourse of a combative police force, which tries to 'save the homeland', with police officers who position themselves as heroes and who, in a way, end up perpetuating the idea in society that police activity has to be violent.

Since the '70s and '80s, across newspapers, magazines, radio and television, there have been programs like that to help promote police activities. Right now, social media and influencers have a much bigger impact. They also speak the language of a younger audience who will end up absorbing this narrative.

In my opinion, the problem is using social media as a police officer, to promote oneself and with a personal objective that has nothing to do with public service. What ends up happening is that influencers migrate toward politics, toward media.

In August 2021, Carlos Alberto da Cunha announced his intention to run in the 2022 legislative elections with the centre-right party Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), despite the controversy around his videos.

For some officers, the notoriety provided by social media has already paid off. At only 27 years old, Gabriel Luiz Monteiro de Oliveira, a former military policeman close to Jair Bolsonaro, became a city councillor in Rio de Janeiro in 2020. On YouTube, his channel has reached 5.5 million subscribers. And even though he left the military police, the YouTuber continues to show himself participating in police operations.

In 2018, the Brazilian legislative elections saw the rise in power of the "bancada da bala" (the Bullet Bench), a powerful pro-gun lobby in favour of a tough policy against crime. Taking advantage of the pro-Bolsonaro wave, the "bancada da bala" grew from about 30 to 100 deputies.

According to Alexandre Pereira da Rocha, the risk is that the same sort of police self-promotion will continue to spread. The researcher explains that the former policemen who are elected to office "defend the interests of their institution" by perpetuating the idea that violence and repression is needed to maintain order.

Brazilian police are considered some of the most violent in the world. In 2019, Brazilian police killed 6,000 people, five times more than in the United States in the same year. According to FBSP, 75 percent of those killed by police in 2018 were Black.

>> Read more on The Observers: Fury on Brazil's social media after security guard chokes young black man to death

In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, the city of Rio de Janeiro experienced a surge in police violence in poor neighbourhoods. On average, nearly five people were killed each day by police in the first five months of the year, the highest level of police violence in 22 years. From these neighbourhoods, some activists are trying to raise the alarm, particularly through citizen photos and videos taken during police raids.

>> Read more on The Observers: After dozens die in deadly police raid, residents of Rio favelas call for justice

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