The Unsung Story of São Paulo’s Murder Rate Drop
Editor’s Note: Murders dropped by half in São Paulo since the year 2000. The singular fall of the violent crime in that city proves a disconnect between murder rates and wider socioeconomic forces, the writers say. Ted Goertzel, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey and Túlio Kahn, Ph.D. is a sociologist in São Paulo, Brazil.
The murder rate in the state of São Paulo has been cut in half since 2000. This will come as a surprise to many readers because there has been so much news coverage of brazen attacks by organized criminals on police stations and public transportation in São Paulo as well as in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities.
These attacks are intended to generate media coverage, embarrass officials and intimidate law enforcement. They disrupt the life of the community and threaten the forces of law and order. But the number of people killed in these attacks is very small compared to the mundane monthly toll of homicides that get little press coverage.
The attacks by organized crime are a response to police crackdowns that have put large numbers of offenders in crowded prisons and removed thousands of handguns from circulation. These police measures have substantially lowered homicide and some other violent crime rates, and have made life much safer for the average citizen or visitor to São Paulo.
The criminal homicide rate in the state of São Paulo reached 35.7 per 100,000 residents in 1999, according to official police data collected by the state’s secretary of public safety. It had been increasing steadily since the mid 1980s. Then, with the dawn of the new millennium, there was a remarkable turning point.
The homicide rate turned down rapidly, falling to 15.1 in 2006. Preliminary figures for 2007 show a further decline. There was a parallel drop in the attempted homicide rate. The rate for negligent homicide (96 percent of which is automobile accidents) did not decrease. The decline was in willful, intentional murder and attempted murder.
The news was not as good everywhere in Brazil. Data from Brasilia’s ministry of justice shows a stable criminal homicide rate for Brazil as a whole from 2001 to 2005.
During this period, the rate declined only slightly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s other huge urban agglomeration. The fact that São Paulo did so much better than Rio and other cities suggests that policy measures implemented on the state level were responsible.
At 15 per 100,000 in 2005, the criminal homicide rate in São Paulo has not yet quite reached the levels achieved by New York City (seven in 2004). But it compares very favorably with the rates reported by Detroit (42), Baltimore (44) and Washington, D.C. (36) in the same year.
Criminological research has uncovered a number of important facts about murder in São Paulo:
* Men are both the offenders and the victims of most homicides; the rate for women is quite low.
* Most homicide victims are between 15 and 29 years of age.
* Most are killed with firearms; the average number of bullet wounds per victim is 6.9.
* Among those whose blood is tested, fewer than half are positive for alcohol, less than 1 percent for cocaine.
* Most occur on the weekend with the peak on Saturday and the lowest number on Wednesday.
* Most of the reduction in the homicide rate has been in the large cities, including the state capital.
The homicide decline in the state of São Paulo in the first decade of this century is similar to the decline in New York City in the 1990s. In both cases, the police adopted more effective methods. In São Paulo the state police forces gave new priority to gathering accurate and timely empirical data and using it to plan and evaluate programs.
An intergovernmental communications network was established to link the military and civil police. Crimes were entered into a geographic information system, and saturation units were sent to areas controlled by drug traffickers. A data base was established with photographs of over 300,000 criminals. Telephone switchboards were set up to receive citizen complaints of incidents, and a web site was opened to take reports of thefts of vehicles, documents and cellular telephones.
Community policing stations were opened, and a homicide combat unit was organized with an emphasis on solving difficult cases. A specialized unit was organized to provide supportive assistance to women who were victims of sexual crimes. Sophisticated computer software linked information from police reports with bank records, telephone records and probable areas of residence. And the police began more aggressive efforts to remove illegal firearms from the streets.
As a consequence of these efforts, the number of imprisonments in the state of São Paulo increased from 18,602 in the first quarter of 1996 to 30,831 in the first quarter of 2001, after which it settled back to approximately 23,000 a month. This increase in the number of convicts sent to prison each quarter of the year led to a steady increase in the state’s prison population. The turning point in the state’s criminal homicide rate came at the peak of this increase in imprisonments.
Gun control was another important factor in the crime drop. In October 2003, the Brazilian federal government enacted a new set of laws to limit the importation of firearms, make it illegal to own unregistered guns or to carry guns on the street, and increase the penalties for violation of gun control laws.
Despite the failure of a national referendum in 2005 to ban commerce in arms and ammunition altogether, Brazilian gun control legislation is much stronger than that in most states of the United States. This legislation has helped to reduce homicide rates.
Data from the Ministry of Health shows that deaths due to firearms in Brazil increased steadily from 1992 to 2003, then dropped significantly. The Ministry of Health data include all categories of gun deaths, including accidental deaths. The improvement was not consistent across Brazil, however.
Comparing 2003 to 2004, deaths due to firearms declined 19 percent in the state of São Paulo, 9.9 percent in the state of Rio de Janeiro, 14.5 percent in Pernambuco, and 20.6 percent in Mato Grosso. But they increased by 7.2 percent in Minas Gerais, 29.3 percent in Amazonas, 11.4 percent in Pará. The improvement in the statistics for Brazil as a whole can be largely accounted for by a very sharp drop in São Paulo which accounts for about 25 percent of the national firearm deaths.
Passing legislation is not enough; the legislation must be vigorously enforced by the state police forces. In the state of São Paulo, confiscations of firearms by the police rose from 6,539 in the first quarter of 1996 to 11,670 in the second quarter of 1999. This peak coincides with the beginning of the great São Paulo homicide drop.
Firearms confiscations remained high through 2004, and then settled back to their previous level. São Paulo authorities believe that the decline in firearms confiscations after 2004 was because the new national legislation had increased the penalties for carrying firearms and fewer persons risked carrying them on the street.
Before the recent homicide drop, Brazil’s high homicide rates were frequently attributed to high levels of poverty and inequality. In a recent book, historian Luís Mir insisted that Brazil was in a state of civil war and characterized São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro as metropolises of death.
Mir insisted that “nothing can be done about the problem until the majority and the minority sit down and discuss the slices of the pie” that each social class receives (Geração Online, 2004). His book was published three years after the homicide rates in São Paulo had begun their sharp decline, yet no such radical re-slicing of the socioeconomic pie had taken place.
The same thing happened to leading American criminologists James Q. Wilson and John DiIulio who published works in the early 1990s predicting massive increases in crime rates after the rates had already begun their precipitous decline.
These analysts erred by attributing cyclical peaks in crime waves to persistent social and economic problems, underestimating the extent to which violent crime has its own dynamics and can be treated as a separate problem. When crime waves get out of hand the public demands action, political leaders allocate more resources, and the criminal justice system does its best to respond.
In both Brazil and the United States, police authorities took effective action to reduce violent crime without waiting for underlying social problems to be resolved. This was also true in Colombia where homicide declined 15 percent in the three years from 2003 to 2006.
By contrast, homicide rates in Venezuela have increased 67 percent since 1999 despite a booming economy and a populist government that claims to be redistributing wealth to the poor.
The great São Paulo homicide drop shows that effective measures can be taken to reduce lethal crime without waiting to solve underlying socioeconomic problems.
Ted Goertzel, Ph.D., is Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey. He is author of a biography of Fernando Henrique Cardoso. His WEB site is http://crab.rutgers.edu/~goertzel
Túlio Kahn, Ph.D., is Coordenador de Análise e Planejamento for the Secretaria de Segurança Pública in São Paulo. His research is available at: http://www.ssp.sp.gov.br/estatisticas/.
SOURCE: New American Media