Interview with Lieutenant Colonel Nadia Rodrigues Silveira Gerhard

We are pleased to publish an interview with Lieutenant Colonel Nadia Rodrigues Silveira Gerhard, the first women to occupy a leadership position in the military police in the state of Rio Grande do Sul. She was in charge of the safety during the protests that took place in Porto Alegre in June, 2013. Professor Lenin Pires, an anthropologist from Public Safety Department of Fluminense Federal University (UFF), conducted the interview.

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Lieutenant Colonel Nadia Rodrigues Silveira Gerhard.

Lenin Pires: What is your view on the Military Police Brigade of Rio Grande do Sul, a traditionally male-dominated institution, being run by a woman? How did your professional trajectory and the current political situation in the country, particularly in Rio Grande do Sul, combine to make this political decision possible?

Nadia Rodrigues Silveira Gerhard: Since 2007, I've commanded the Military Police Battalion, a Land Operating Unit responsible for uniformed policing and the Judiciary Military Police. Initially, in the rank of Major, I commanded the 40th BPM (Military Police Battalion), based in the city of Estrela and responsible for eleven other municipalities on the right bank of the river that gives its name to the Taquari Valley region. After being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in July, 2012, I took over the 19th BPM, which is responsible for the entire eastern zone of Porto Alegre. The performance of women in senior command and leadership positions has proved successful, since women are characteristically decentralized leaders that favor partnership and transparency. This facilitates integration and makes for better results. For the Military Brigade to have a woman in charge for the first time in its 175-year history represents a break from the traditional paradigm. This new vision of the female commander was necessary for the credibility and continuity of the institution in its adaptation to modern times, where women participate in all sectors and play a leading role in a number of activities.

LP: Do you feel that this decision reflects, to some extent, the demands of social movements, such as those led by women on different fronts? How important are the policies about violence against women in this decision?

NRSG: In my understanding, it goes far beyond a minority issue, because violence against women directly affects the whole family as well as society. This is probably why it was so well received, both politically and by social movements catered to by the public safety institutions in Rio Grande do Sul. 

Over the years, there has been a significant increase in the number of deaths and mistreatment of female victims of domestic violence in the state. In 2010, 84 women were killed. In 2011, the figure was 45, and in 2012, 93 women died inside their homes, which should be a refuge of protection for the family unit. These women had their lives snuffed out by assailants who, unfortunately, were not prevented from doing so by the powers that be. Domestic violence affects thousands of women, regardless of age or social class. Most cases occur inside the home and the assailants are husbands, partners, or other individuals with whom the victims maintained an affective relationship. According to statistics, one in every three women will suffer from domestic violence in Rio Grande do Sul. This is an alarming number and for this reason, cross-cutting policies are needed to eradicate these problems by mobilizing all public-safety institutions.

Thus, in order to ensure the effectiveness of Community Policing, a program has been set up within the Military Brigade to provide comprehensive assistance to women who are victims of domestic abuse. The Patrulha Maria da Penha (Maria da Penha Patrol) is made up of qualified officers, with resources, means, and policing practices adapted to the needs of the victims and seeking their full involvement in addressing domestic violence. Citizens and society are viewed not only as clients, but as partners in the services performed by police and military-police forces in organizing communities rather than merely providing services. These forces are responsible for all dimensions of uniformed-police services and preserving public order (order, consent, enforcement, and police sanction), which are constitutionally attributed, lato senso, to police institutions under article 144, and, strictu senso, to the Military Police.

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LP: The political demonstrations united several different social demands, presented by a range of social classes. Issues related to human rights that clamor for state guarantees of the right to be different were placed on the agenda, perhaps because of the possibility of certain institutions thwarting these expectations in their normative plans and public policies. Amidst the protests on the street, state governments called on the institutions responsible for public order and uniformed patrols to interact with this reality. What difficulties did you encounter as a commanding officer given the heterogeneity of the mood that characterizes police forces in general, and the Military Brigade of Rio Grande do Sul in particular? How did you approach the challenge of conveying a message of unified command in relation to protestors’ expectations of having their rights and integrity preserved? What is your assessment of the nuances of military-police action in the different states in comparison to that of the Military Brigade in  Rio Grande do Sul?

NRSG: The officers of the Military Brigade, which comprise the military-police contingent for Rio Grande do Sul, are highly adaptable to new situations and are constantly reviewing technical procedures and improving working methods, guided by the law and focused on the well-being of society.

Notably, we encountered people who committed crimes, such as burglary, in amongst the large group of individuals who were protesting peacefully. The military-police force is made up of individuals to whom these movements also reflected their own desire for change toward a better country. In Rio Grande do Sul, as part of the contingent that policed the demonstrations, I can confirm that we sought to provide security to all those involved to ensure that the desired change would take place through mobilization and dialogue. We never lost this focus, even in the tensest and most tumultuous moments.

LP: Throughout the country, military-police forces were, and continue to be, severely criticized for their excessive and disproportionate use of force against the protestors. How do you interpret this criticism?

NRSG: The Military Police cannot be naïve in the face of so many different interests, including the interests of those behind the criticism, because the result of our work is not an end in itself. In other words, our goal is not for a society apparently at peace, but rather one actually at peace while constantly striving to progress in resolving its conflicts.

LP: Does this criticism reflect a lack of understanding regarding the institutional challenges of maintaining order? We are made up of individuals for whom the size of the result obtained is proportionate to the discretion of their actions. This applies to all individuals, both ordinary citizens and those charged with enforcing the law. We must also take into account people’s freedom to come and go as they please, provided they do not harm others. The Military Police must first strive for collective rights over those of the individual, particularly with respect to the protests. Does maintaining democratic order require the use of unrestrained police force, as seen in some states? And in the case of the Military Brigade, what is your assessment of its use?

NRSG: Decisions such as these are highly complex and also involve an element of action/reaction time. But once made, they must always protect the greatest asset, which is life. That’s the rule, whereas overriding the different stages of using police force is an exception. The Military Brigade planned its action in the moderate use of force, employing force proportionately to the resistance offered, and observing whether it was necessary, ethical, and legal.

LS: Much has been said about the repressive nature of the military-police forces during the demonstrations. However, the civil police, government ministries, and other institutions were also closely involved with repressive action. What is your assessment of the systemic action of these institutions in guaranteeing fundamental democratic rights?

NRSG: The Military Police are always present, since they are physically onsite during demonstrations and also continue to patrol the city streets. I imagine that managers, not only of public-safety units but others as well, will review their services from a state point of view in order to meet the needs of the population. The presence of all authorities (Military Police, Civil Police, Public Defenders, etc.) is essential and irreplaceable in acting to ensure fundamental rights.

LS: One of the issues that has emerged is the demilitarization of police forces in Brazil. Many feel that the existence of a military-police force is a contradiction in terms. After all, the police force is an institution of the modern world responsible for administering civil conflicts inherent to market societies, whereas military organizations, in modern times, are dedicated to protecting domestic arrangements from internal enemies. In this instance, the hierarchy is based on the authority of unified order which, when applied to the military, seems to homogenize the notion of public order, curbing social, political, and even legal dimensions. What is your view on the combination of civil attributions and a military ethos? Do you feel that the homogenization of public order, translated in the notion of united order, is consistent with the function of police forces that are continuously faced with unpredictability?

NRSG: After “obeying,” the strongest and most appealing verb in our profession is “to command.” Much more comprehensive that ordering, directing, managing, coordinating, supervising, etc., commanding is, above all, knowing how to lead, watching over, and even loving those who honorably—replete with the symbolic rites that reinforce our most important attitudes—leave their houses every day carrying weapons, but with their spirits unarmed, to serve society even at the risk of their own lives. Commanding is based on the assumption that officers fully understand the nobility of the constitutional mission entrusted to us by the 1988 Federal Constitution. The aforementioned focus on the training and use of our forces to protect domestic arrangements does not correspond to the reality of the continuous and daily efforts of the Military Brigade, in which I command one of the Battalions. It is a label constantly repeated by individuals or organizations that are far removed from our modern ideas of social harmony and guaranteeing individual and collective rights, representing the “id,” while we in the Military Police in some situations play the role of the “superego.” The notion of unified order aligns with the element of unpredictability in the areas policed by the men and women of the Military Police. This instills in everyone (commanders, officers and the population) the predictability of the action or reaction of professional forces in the face of illegal acts, within the limits established by norms and laws. Often the speed of events requires immediate measures, which are readily accepted and implemented by officers who fulfill their social role with efficiency and discipline, and without delaying the necessary police action. It is important to remember there is often confusion between military ideology and military investiture. We may very well have military investiture, acting in a wide range of areas, including air-traffic controllers, doctors, firemen, engineers, etc. The Military Police does not exist only in Brazil. Around the globe there are basically two types of police forces: those of Anglo-Saxon origin (civil investiture, militarized) or of Latino/Gendarme origin (military investiture). Even the famous United States Police Force, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, and Scotland Yard, examples of efficiency and acceptance, have uniforms, insignias, and military ranks, as well as unified order regulations.

LS: What is your view on the possible effects of the protests on the Military Brigade corporation? What internal debates or reflections do you believe they may have provoked?

NRSG: The Military Brigade bases all its actions on the principles of legality, order, and social harmony. Thus, we also improve by experiencing events of this magnitude with characteristics that are unprecedented in the country’s history. It has come to our attention that all on-demand action and the use of progressive force or crowd-control devices are being audited by the Military Brigade Internal Affairs Department. As with any activity, we are required to provide feedback on any action, identifying errors, foreseeing and implementing improvements, perfecting techniques and, consequently, continuing to strive towards the model expected by the Brazilian population. 

LS: When the protests began, commercial communication companies in Brazil publicized the events in a negative light. The word “riot” dominated the news for days. At a certain point, the media stance changed. Some broadcasters began relaying news depicting the protests as a positive move for democracy, but condemning the so-called “acts of vandalism.” To what do you attribute this change? What is your assessment of press coverage on the figure of the "thug," considering that the demonstrations were and are being led primarily by young people from more firmly established social groups? Who are these “thugs” and what are their crimes, considering their actions permeate political protests?

NRSG: I accompanied the demonstrations from the outset, together with trade-union members and students, and observed, at least in Porto Alegre, the exact opposite of that claimed in the first part of the question. We strive to keep in mind that social movements have always guided important social changes, expressed through marches, stoppages, or occupations that temporarily disrupt the daily routine in an attempt to reconstruct different social roles and establish a new identity for the city, the state, and even the country as a whole. From the beginning, it appeared to be a large mass of people, with no definitive allegiances, consisting of decentralized groups with different goals. This made it difficult for the state to establish a unit of dialogue. From that moment on, certain individuals who infiltrated the movement began to take advantage of the situation to commit misdemeanors and even crimes. This conduct is very clear, given that the longer they acted, the more negative the image of the protests became, causing loss of credibility and support from the population. In Rio Grande do Sul, we identified "processions” from economically less-advantaged neighborhoods, young vandals from different social classes, most with criminal records, and even opportunists looking for publicity. This behavior weakened the demonstrations because the orderly people involved in legitimate protests (the right to protest peacefully) opted not to stay long for fear of violence by these criminals or, possibly, the resulting police response. In many cases, those who were protesting peacefully identified and handed over these vandals and opportunists. Added to this analysis is the cry of demonstrators that the current political entities in government did not represent them, in conjunction with the energy and immediacy typical of youth and the anonymity that makes the few perpetrators of less noble acts almost “untouchable” by the forces of justice.