Police Strikes in Rio and Salvador — You Get What You Pay For

Carnaval on Salvador's streets
The strike is putting into jeopardy Brazil's signature event, Carnaval, in its two most representative cities, Rio de Janeiro and Salvador

“You get what you pay,” is a saying that doesn’t have an exact translation in Portuguese, much like other words, such as ‘enforcement[1],’ ‘check’ (as in a ‘check on authority), and ‘accountability’[2]. If language fashions our world view, as linguists suggest, it may help us understand why most Brazilians react limply to gross inequities, malfeasance, and impunity, as exemplified by the police and fire brigade strikes crippling Salvador and Rio de Janeiro just one week before Carnaval.

The Unacceptable Behavior of Brazil’s Police

Striking police and firemen have burned buses, occupied the state assembly, and are accused of inciting and participating in violence and looting. Homicide rates have nearly doubled from their already towering tallies, and now the military have been called in.

President Dilma Rousseff does not deny the right to strike – an activity in line with her political party’s first-order principles – but she does decry (Globo article) the way in which the strike is being undertaken:

I don’t consider an increase of homicides on city streets, burning buses, or entering buses in hooded masks the right way of conducting the movement.

But who can expect better behavior from front-line public servants receiving the equivalent of Rio and Salvador’s police officers, approximately R$1500 (about US$1000 a month)? A paltry R$1500 – adjusted for 5 to 6.5 percent annual inflation every couple of years –  doesn’t buy much dignity or discipline; which is probably why most citizens of Rio and Salvador view the Military Police (no association to MPs in other countries—they are regular police) with about the same temerity as common criminals.

I have personally observed petty protection rackets at work in Rio de Janeiro – just the start of police criminal activity. Earlier this year, masked gunmen in Rio de Janeiro rained bullets on the car of Patrícia Acioli, a federal judge prosecuting police paramilitary groups and militias. Her killing warned others off of similar police purges. There are a lot of good men and women in the police forces, but the monetary incentives do not favor the assurance of decent behavior.

Unacceptable Pay for Brazil’s Front-Line Public Servants

Much like firemen and teachers, the police are society’s front-line civil servants, determining our civic quality of life to a greater extent than public employees who earn salaries several multiples higher. Brazil’s 513 Lower House Deputies earn $26,700 a month (about US$190K a year), even more than the U.S.’ 435 Congressional Representatives. Yet Brazil’s National Congress is only responsible for approximately 15 percent of all approved legislation – the remaining 85 percent comes from the president. Just last week, a newly elected Brazilian deputy and former soccer star, Romário, tweeted his frustration over the Brazilian Congress’ inactivity:

It’s been 3 weeks since I came to Brasilia to work, and nothing is going on. And look, we’re in an election year… I hope that on my next arrival to Brasilia we have something to f____g do.

Something is very wrong with public priorities when congressmen are collecting huge salaries for relative redundancy, while society’s front-line public workers earn twenty times less. Heck, even secretaries and administrative assistants in the state bureaucracy receive higher wages than teachers, police, and firemen. State governors complain that increasing pay will bankrupt their states. Clearly, budgeting is a matter of priority, and the answer is to tradeoff and adjust. Federal transfers to the states might help. Certainly, the federal government should be making productive use of this year’s surplus and Brazil’s huge tax-take — the largest tax burden in the Americas as a percentage of GDP.

Recent ‘Occupy’ movements around the world have questioned the way capitalism and public policy works. We should also be questioning how we pay the front-line public servants who shape our society – we get what we pay for.


[1] ‘Cumprimento’ and ‘constrangimento’ are close equivalents, but still don’t communicate the idea of enforcement without further qualification.

[2] ‘Prestação de contas’ is the closest equivalent, but most academics and policy specialists (both in Spanish and Portuguese) view the word as inadequate to the concept, and instead use the English ‘accountability’.


  • Interesting read, as usual. Certainly, low wages are part of the problem with police in Brazil. However, I believe that increasing salaries will not greatly increase the quality of the services provided. You’d need a lot more training (also very costly), and a far broader commitment to the other ‘front line services’, than we currently have. As you mentioned, trade-offs must be made, on budgetary grounds, and it seems insulting to see Federal Deputies earning a lot for nothing(*), whereas civil servants doing hard work get nothing. But if you take the Federal District, for which police, fire-fighters and education are paid from the Federal pocket (as you have suggested should be generalized), what we get is a very costly but still inefficient police force. Relatively lower criminality in Brasília might be a function not of better policing (just go out to certain rougher cidades-satélites to see the same violence as elsewhere), but of better overall standard of living in the DF. In Brasília, a military police agent earns not much less than a federal university professor, despite the obvious differences in skills and training, and still doesn’t provide a tremendously efficient service. Finally, when talking about the issue of improving wages for people in the ‘law enforcement’ business, we should consider that we are talking of over 600.000 policemen and fire-fighters all over Brazil (http://portal.mj.gov.br/data/Pages/MJCF2BAE97ITEMIDAACCEEFBA784458E99DCADBC672C3096PTBRNN.htm). Slashing salaries for ineffective legislators will not do the deal, any further allocation of public money for policemen, across the board, would be extremely costly. And without further improvements in equipment and training, would probably produce little effective change on the front line. I’m not really sure we should be spending more on police; I think the same money might be better spent — ie more effective –, in the long run, improving education, particularly fundamental and secondary education.


    (*) You might be mixing legislative initiative with legislative action; perhaps only 15% of proposed laws originate in either of the chambers of Congress, but even the proposals originated by the executive power must be voted on by both chambers. I think that the role of congress is not necessarily to draft bills, but to check executive power and to analyze proposals extensively and in detail. I obviously grant you that the Brazilian Congress hardly does anything in either of those missions.

    • Hi Matthias,
      Always great comments. You’re right about the cost of raising salaries, but as you yourself admit — tradeoffs. I’m also not sure about your claim about salaries: I think that if you reach a certain comfort salary, say, R$3500, your value proposition of being a police officer gains a great more dignity. After $3500, the gains may be marginal… it is a matter of finding that psychological threshold, and some experimental psychology could easily find the sweet spot. Higher salaries typically buy better educated help, but education will continue to be a problem. Brazil needs better human development services: health, education, etc, if it’s going to give rise to proficient public servants. As for legislators, I was not confused; the point is that few legislators actually elaborate bills that become law– one of the legislature’s primary raisons d’etre. Oh yeah, as for its other constitutional attributions, representing citizens, checking the executive, and constraining the purse strings, the Congress itself is less representative and needs more checking than the executive, not to mention its fiscal profligacy. So yes, I am saying that the Congress may make a few amendments and issue a few blackmail demands now and then, but it generally does little compared to parliaments in other countries. And it sure shouldn’t cost as much as it does!

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