By Victor Ribeiro and Dalila Mujagic.

A video containing footage of a brutal police incident went viral amongst social media users in Rio de Janeiro. The footage shows Lapa Presente officers — a unit of military police dedicated to tourist areas and funded by a group of business and economic interests called the Federation of Markets in Rio de Janeiro—beating and using pepper spray against local teenagers hanging out in the popular tourist hotspot of Lapa in downtown Rio.

Police use pepper spray as one teen attempts to shield another. Click on photo above to open the original video.

The events in the video take place on March 2nd at the Selarón Steps, a famous set of painted stairs which—amidst a rise in Lapa’s gentrification—is one of the only places where younger locals can afford to hang out. The person holding the camera can be heard yelling out: “I am filming, ok?” several times. But the Lapa Presente officers continue to beat the teenagers and confiscate their cell phones. Later in the video, another teenager who attempts to film the violence is beaten, arrested, and has his cell phone confiscated immediately.

Human rights defenders and independent media collectives denounced the police brutality by sharing the video on social media to bolster public support and sending it to the Public Prosecutor’s office. However, it is an unfortunate reality that incidents like this—even with video footage—rarely lead to indictments of or repercussions for the guilty parties, which further encourages violent cops to continue acting with impunity.

Whether or not the police officers in question face repercussions, the Lapa video is bringing public attention to an urgent human rights discussion in Brazil: the right to record the police. Guilherme Pimentel is a coordinator with Defezap, an organization that designed an online platform to collect videos and photos depicting police abuse in Rio. In an interview with WITNESS, Guilherme noted:

“The footage shows unjustified violence, banal usage of pepper spray (a chemical weapon), and seizure of cell phones, which clearly represent a violation of the right to record police abuses.”

Defezap frequently posts on social media with guidance about the right to record in Brazil (see picture below). They inform the public, and especially residents of marginalized communities, about the following basic rules:


  • it is legal to film police officers on duty
  • It is illegal for police officers to seize cell phones and cameras
  • It is illegal for police officers to prevent the public from filming


The outrage in the reactions to the Lapa video further exemplifies how often such police violence occurs and showcases the power of video to amplify the voices speaking out against it. WITNESS is working closely with Defezap to verify the mounting collection of videos submitted to the organization, and how they can best utilize eyewitness video to secure justice. To learn more about WITNESS’ work in Brazil, visit (in Portuguese).

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