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World

Families Of Slain Brazilian Police Officers Ask For Tougher Penalties

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

Police in Brazil have a reputation as some of the most brutal and lethal in the world. Human rights groups estimate they're responsible for thousands of deaths a year. But police in Brazil are also a common target. Each year hundreds are killed, often in revenge slayings. Now the families of slain officers are demanding the government do more to punish their killers. NPR's South America correspondent, Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, reports.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Carine Xavier is wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with an image of her father on the job. He's staring intimidatingly into the camera holding a weapon. Underneath is the date of Jorge Henrique Xavier's birth and death. He was a military policeman working one of the toughest beats - the complex of favelas or shantytowns of Alemao in Rio de Janeiro. But he wasn't killed there. He was gunned-down a few months ago as was walking home from the convenience store in the rural city of Mage where he lived, not far from Rio.

CARINE XAVIER: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "I got there just after he was killed," Carine tells me. "I didn't want to see him dead. I wanted to remember him smiling, happy."

C. XAVIER: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The only thing I held was his hand as I said goodbye. I said, father go with God," she says. There's actually a video of the moment the 54-year-old was murdered, which was caught by security cameras.

(SOUNDBITE OF GLOBO TV REPORT)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It made the news. In this Globo TV report, you can see three men pumping bullets into his prone (ph) body. The motive for the murder isn't clear, but his daughters say Jorge Henrique was trying to stop drug gangs from setting up shop in his neighborhood. Nathalia Xavier, Jorge Henrique's older daughter, says they want justice now.

NATHALIA XAVIER: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "There are many families with the same problem with the same cause. There have been too many killings," she says. "It's been terrible. There are so many policemen dying," she says. The numbers of total cop killings across Brazil are unclear, mostly because official statistics don't count off-duty deaths like Jorge Henrique Xavier's, but at least 87 policemen were killed in 2014 in Rio State alone, say advocacy groups. Other groups, like the police union, say the number is triple that. The families of the dead cops have now joined forces. They want tougher penalties for cop killers. At the main police headquarters in Alemao, where Jorge Henrique Xavier worked, officers wear bulletproof vests and are heavily armed. It's a sign of the tensions here. Flavia Louzada is a military policewoman who also works in Alemao.

FLAVIA LOUZADA: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "Our salaries are low," she says, "our work schedule is inhumane. Conditions are precarious, and when a policeman dies," she says, "the family is completely forgotten." So she founded a group called Policeman's Lives Are Sacred As All Lives Are, which has united the families of dead policeman. She says, you don't get harsher sentences in Brazil if you kill a cop, unlike in the U.S., and the government here treats the families of fallen cops badly.

LOUZADA: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The families face a lot of bureaucracy to get their financial rights, like compensation," she says.

LOUZADA: (Foreign language spoken).

GARCIA-NAVARRO: "The bullet doesn't only kill a policeman," she says. "It kills a whole family."

IGNACIO CANO: They live in difficult circumstances and the job is not very valued.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Ignacio Cano, an expert in police violence in Rio. He says police officers are often poor themselves, so they live in the same marginal communities rife with gangs, which makes them targets. But Cano says main reason so many police are killed is because of how violent they are. On average, police in Brazil kill six people a day, according to human rights groups, and often in murky circumstances. And then the criminal groups fight back.

CANO: We have a very excessive use of force and many of these are revenge killings. So police do carry out revenge killings. And criminal groups, when they recognize a police officer off-duty, they execute him for the same reason.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And that, he says, taps into something broader here than the battle between the police and the drug gangs. He says the police act extra judicially because there is no faith in the criminal justice system. Cano says that statistics show that out of a hundred homicides, less than eight result in a sentence against the perpetrators.

CANO: Up to 44 percent of the population in Brazil supports the idea that killing a criminal is the way to deal with crime.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Back at the house of the daughters of the slain police officer, I'm shown a picture of a bloody man slumped in a corner of a room. They tell me it's one of the alleged perpetrators of their father's murder. When I ask how he died, they say they don't know. News reports say it was unclear who killed him or why. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Mage. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.