In Brazil's Slums, Police Try A Softer Touch The residents of Rio de Janeiro's slums, or favelas, are accustomed to seeing the police come in with guns blazing. But in Santa Marta, the police are trying an entirely different approach: community policing, which is already bringing positive change.

In Brazil's Slums, Police Try A Softer Touch

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Now we'll report on how authorities are trying to deal with violence in the slums of Rio de Janeiro. The residents of those slums, better known as favelas, are used to seeing police come in with guns at the ready. But in Santa Marta, one of Rio's oldest favelas, the police are trying an entirely different approach. It's an approach city officials say they want to replicate ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games in the city. Already, this approach is bringing positive change and residents are cautiously optimistic. NPR's Juan Forero reports from Rio in the last of our series on Brazil.

JUAN FORERO: When cops go into Rio's favelas, they go prepared for combat -helmets, assault rifles, armored personnel carriers, and they often go in with helicopter support. Then, they retreat. Those tactics were well-known in Santa Marta, a tight warren of cinderblock homes, a favela once as violent as they come.

But that's not Captain Pricilla's style. She's Pricilla Azevedo, 31 years old, and instead of a helmet, she wears a soft, blue beret.

Captain PRICILLA AZEVEDO (Rio de Janeiro Police): (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Along an impossibly steep street, Captain Pricilla stops to greet Salvador Pinto de Souza. He's 70 and remembers being among the first to settle Santa Marta. He saw, firsthand, Santa Marta's slide into chaos as drug gangs took over.

Mr. SALVADOR PINTO DE SOUZA: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: I don't know if she likes me, Pinto de Souza says, but she's always popping in to see me. She might be checking to make sure I'm still alive.

Mr. DE SOUZA: (Portuguese spoken)

Capt. AZEVEDO: (Portuguese spoken)

Mr. DE SOUZA: (Portuguese spoken)

Capt. AZEVEDO: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Pricilla Azevedo is the commander of a special community policing unit, among the first of its kind in Rio. It all began a year ago, after police swarmed into Santa Marta and drove drug trafficking gangs out. Captain Pricilla and her team of 125 cops then moved in and stayed. Her job entails seeing what people like Pinto de Souza need.

Capt. AZEVEDO: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: She says the idea is to serve as a liaison between residents and the government. With her new unit has come improved water and electrical service, and even a new soccer field.

Capt. AZEVEDO: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Winning hearts and minds, though, isn't easy. Rio's police killed more than 1,100 people last year. And the United Nations, noting few of those killings are investigated, called police operations in the favelas, quote, "murderous and self-defeating."

Sergeant Gilson - he says he's not authorized to give his last name � is among the tough cops in this district of Rio. He says a heavy hand is necessary in violent slums.

Unidentified Man #1: (Portuguese spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Riding shotgun on a recent day, the snout of his assault rifle poking out the car window, Sergeant Gilson says if police, quote, "show weakness," they will lose.

Sergeant GILSON: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: He also says deaths are a necessary byproduct of fighting favela crime, which he equates with war. Were that not true, Sergeant Gilson says, the Americans would no longer be in Iraq.

Jose Mariano Beltrame, Rio's secretary of public security, acknowledged that there's a problem with some Rio officers.

Mr. JOSE MARIANO BELTRAME (Secretary of Public Security, Rio de Janeiro): (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: Beltrame says the officers in the new community policing units will be new themselves. That way, Beltrame says, they won't come in with the inherent vices veteran street cops pick up.

(Soundbite of rattling sound)

FORERO: To reach Santa Marta, residents ride up a funicular - heavy wagons inching their way up a rail like a giant caterpillar. High up here with a picturesque view of Rio's famous beaches, Captain Pricilla walks from home to home with two fellow cops.

Capt. AZEVEDO: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: She says it's hard to turn around 50 years of history in Santa Marta, but that her intention is to change the impression people have of the police.

Thiago Firmino is a young street activist and a teacher, and he's seen a difference.

Mr. THIAGO FIRMINO (Street Activist, Teacher): (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: He says things aren't perfect, but they're 100 percent better than before. Crime is down, he says, and his eight-year-old son, for the first time, can ride his bike in the street.

Firmino says that a major change is that residents know they can go to Captain Pricilla to complain about crime or about the behavior of the police.

Mr. FIRMINO: (Portuguese spoken)

FORERO: In fact, if residents want to speak directly to the captain, they've got her phone number.

Juan Forero, NPR News.

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