This article addresses some of the main challenges to the democratic reform of police institutions in Brazil, particularly in São Paulo. It identifies and explores patterns of police abuse through an analysis of a famous kidnapping together with the field observations, interviews and available statistical evidence. It analyses the sources and logic of popular support for a ‘violent police’, which coexists with a negative evaluation of the police and a high victimization of working-class people. It argues that the roots of this paradox are found in a long history of state disrespect for civil rights, in particular poor people’s rights, and in a deep disbelief in the fairness of the justice system and its ability to function without bias.
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