Monday, July 29, 2013

Gallery of Heroes - or report your crimes when we have toner - São Paulo

As promised a few blogs ago, here is the story of my introduction to crime reporting in São Paulo.

Last year, a 21-year-old alumna of my alma mater came to stay with us for a couple weeks while on an 11-country tour. Debbie was studying martial arts worldwide on a Watson scholarship, and was in Brazil to study capoeira for a few months--mostly in Bahia but also two weeks in São Paulo. Debbie was very independent and in spite of not speaking the language or knowing the city, she searched the web for an intensive Portuguese class, which she found in a neighborhood about 30 minutes by bus from our house. She then found the bus line that would take her there and she was off.

On her third day of class, I received a call on my cell phone when I was in a meeting. Debbie was calling from her Portuguese class. She breathlessly said that she had been robbed on the bus. Someone had unzipped her small over-the-shoulder purse and taken her wallet with Watson ID, bus pass, cash, keys to my house, and a number of smaller items. She had not lost her cell phone. Without going into details on how the crime had taken place, she asked what she should do.

I told her to find the closest police station to report the crime. Two minutes later she called back and told me that the people in her Portuguese school (the Brazilians) told her not to bother. The reason? Reporting is pointless, according to them, the police would never catch the guy. I had a different opinion—I wanted her to report the crime so that statistics would show that the buses in a certain area were dangerous, and that (theoretically) more security would be assigned there. I told her to take a taxi back to my house and I would pay for it, and then we would go to the police station together.

When Debbie got home, she told me the whole story. She had been seated on the bus facing the "cobrador". Buses in Brazil are manned by a bus driver and the "cobrador" or money-charger who will change any bills (exact change signs as blazoned on NY buses are not here). She was wearing her small purse slung over her shoulder, and with her hand on top of it. Debbie is Chinese-American. According to her, the money-taker started making racist gestures at her such as making pulling his eyelids to make squinty eyes, and speaking to someone just out of sight on the other side of the turnstile. Debbie did not understand what they were saying. Finally, she removed her hand from her purse to gesture “me?” and to try to understand. During these moments when she was distracted from her bag, someone unzipped it, and took her documents and money. When Debbie discovered it, she immediately assumed the money-taker was involved and tried, in English, to complain or get some help. No one on the bus spoke English. No one helped her. She left the bus in tears.

Close to our house is a large park called Villa-Lobos. At the entrance to this park, down a few hundred meters, there is a Policia Militar (military police) station. I had noticed it a number of times before since it even abuts the running path through the park (though you cannot actually access it from inside the park, which seems bizarre). I said to Debbie we would try there first. We decided to take my car even though it was walkable—just in case it took a while and we ran into rodizio (rodizio is the six hour period one day a week when you cannot use your car 7-10 am, 5-8 pm). Off we went.

Police Station Villa-Lobos (from

As we pulled up to the gated entrance, a military policeman comes to the car and asks “pois não?” which literally means “no?” but in this case means “yes, may I help you?”See a prior blog on this one.

Me: “We need to file a ‘boletim de occorrencia’”.  (crime report)

Guard: “Não pode.” (you can’t)

Me: “Por que não? (why not) "Aqui é delegacia?" (Isn’t this a police station?)

Guard: “Pois é." (Yes).

Me: “….?”

Guard: “Estamos sem “toner”” (We have no toner. “Toner” apparently has no translation in Portuguese)

Me: “O que?” (what?)

Guard: “Não tem como imprimir o boletim" (We can’t print the crime report).

Me: “Podemos fazer eletronico e outro dia imprimir?" (can we do the electronic bit and print the rest out later?)

Guard: “Não pode” (You can't)

While flabbergasted that I cannot file a police report because the printer is out of toner, I finally pull it together to ask if there is another station nearby that might have some toner. He shrugs and says he doesn’t know. Pois é, the police man does not know if there is another police station. He tells me to keep driving down to the traffic circle about a kilometer away and ask someone there. I hope I will ask someone who is not a bad guy.

I drive on, and Debbie and I are shaking our heads about how crime cannot be reported without toner. We get into the Praça Panamericana and I happen to glimpse a sign that I’ve seen a million times before but never read. It reads “BPM- 13 Dist. – Sede” with a directional arrow. Aha! That means the Military Police Battalian 13th district headquarters are nearby. Hooray! We start following the signs. The signs lead us up and down and around in circles. Just when we think it is hopeless, a sign pops up pointing back in the direction from which we came. Finally, we are down a tiny side street and I ask the neighborhood security guard where the station is, and he points across the street at a tiny white house, behind a metal grade, and down some stairs.

We park. We walk to the locked gate and ring the bell. No one answers. Down in the little BPM “house” we can see two uniformed men, from the shoulders down, from our angle, walking around. Either ignoring us or not hearing the bell. So I check out the gate, and notice I can pop the lock from reaching inside the grade. So I reach inside and unlock the gate.

We walk down the steps and into the large open room. Not a single seat. Just a huge long counter and one very surprised policeman behind it. Clearly wondering how we got in.

PM: “Pois não?”

Me: “We’d like to file a police report.”

PM: “You can’t do that here.”

Me: “Why not?”

PM: “You have to go to a police station.”

Me: (looking around and then looking pointedly at his uniform)—“isn’t this a police station?”

PM: “No, this is police headquarters.”’

Me: “Oh.”

The PM suggests that we go to the military police station at Villa-Lobos. I say it is out of toner. This does not seem to surprise him. He tells me of another station further away, and I make note of it. As I turn to leave, I notice a huge empty wall with a sign at the top. It reads “Galeria dos Herois” (Gallery of Heroes). It is completely blank.

We get back in the car. It is now 4 pm and I am starting to get nervous because of rodizio. But we head over to the other police station. I note there is no free parking. I wonder how people who have their money stolen park there. Maybe they have their cars stolen too. We walk inside. At a front counter is a man typing on a laptop, no uniform. We stand in front of him. He doesn’t look up. Finally we figure out that he is just a member of the community, and not affiliated with the police. No one greets us…so I keep walking back farther into the police station. There are about 6 people waiting on broken chairs watching a fuzzy TV novella. We keep walking.

As we walk past a window (with no information or signs), a muscled plainsclothes cop pops out of nowhere, gun holstered under his arm, and blocks our way.

Detective: “What do you want?”

Me: “We need to file a police report.”

Detective: “Really? (sarcasm? Or was he trying to joke?)

I explained to him the general outline and he said that we would need to wait since there were other people in front of us. He shows us the broken chairs. There are no numbers to decide who is next. We sit. And sit. After 15 minutes, another PM comes through and asks us all what kind of crimes we are reporting. He tells one couple that they can report their occurrence on line, because it is a theft rather than a robbery. He comes to us and we tell him how the situation is, and he said we could not do it online because the items were purposefully stolen, not that someone had picked up a lost item.

We wait 20 minutes more then I ask if Debbie can talk with someone who speaks English, since I have to go because of rodizio. The detective looks at me blankly. No one speaks English. I tell the detective that we have to go. He says “come back anytime, we’re here 24 hours a day.”

We never did report the crime. Four days later I return to the original police station and ask them if they had gotten their toner yet. They said no. Note to all gringos coming for the world cup: bring toner. I’ll find out the cartridge number.

Note: a couple of months ago I met the lieutenant in charge of the Villa Lobos police station. I told him this whole story and he added some information.

1. The police man at the entrance to the station who mentioned the toner missing was actually a contracted worker not a police man. I said that did not excuse his attitude. The lieutenant agreed. 
2. All police stations should take reports verbally if they are out of toner and keep them electronically until able to print. 
3. You cannot report crimes at police headquarters. 
4. The Gallery of Heroes is for photos of men and women who died in police service. It was a blank wall not because there were no heroes, but because there were no dead heroes. I apologized to him for that one.
5. He claimed that calling "190" which is the 911 equivalent in Brazil, you can get an English-speaking attendant who can help. He volunteered for us to do that together one day from the police station and see what happened. I have yet to find time to do that.


  1. Ahhhh - interacting with the police. Sigh. Yeah, this is one of those topics where stories rarely have a good ending.

    Danille over at Danielle in Brazil has a recurring post topic "Caught Being Good" [] -- It would be great to see a post about the police that could be added to her collection.

    Sorry to hear of your frustrations, and especially of your friend's misfortune.

    1. Hi Jim, yes...interacting with the Brazilian police rarely has a good ending though I have also had two very good interactions, one with the PM turned consultant that came to my kids' school to talk about security and the second is the lieutenant in charge of the questionable "delegacia".

      I am going to follow up--I was waiting until the protests died down a bit since I am sure they had better things to do than chat with the gringa. But I'm going back.

      I'm going to check Danielle's blog now. Thanks for the link!