Roberto Chaves

This description of Roberto Chaves's work was prepared when Roberto Chaves was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2011.


Roberto “Beto” Chaves, a member of Rio de Janeiro’s police force, is rebuilding trust between Rio’s police and its favela communities. Through loosely structured “chats” in the community between police, ex-convicts and youth, Beto is breaking down the stereotypes and misconceptions that each group holds about the others, and has opened new lines of communication between the police and the community.

The New Idea

Through a series of Chat Projects (Projeto Papo de Responsa) held in schools with a police person, an ex-convict, and youth from the community, old stereotypes are gradually broken down and new concepts enter the discussion, such as interdependence and coexistence. This process leads to growing respect and mutual understanding among the youth and the Civil Police Department.

Beto’s idea does not end with breaking down these stereotypes, humanizing the police department, changing attitudes and even changing behaviors. He institutionalizes these changed attitudes within the police department and the affected communities. In the police department, he plans to create a new, autonomous Prevention and Community Outreach Department to coordinate and carry-out the Chats Projects and programs to guarantee its continuance and independence by creating a new charter to be signed by police and governmental leaders, and incorporating independent funders. To institutionalize his approach and build a broad societal consensus around this police-community relationship, he is reaching out to citizen organizations (COs) that operate effectively in these communities and with the private sector.

The program has achieved so much initial success, reaching more than 100,000 youth in a few years that it has attracted partners from all sectors, greater visibility, and respect within the police force. Beto’s initiative has been recognized as a model to replicate by the Ministry of Justice and National Human Rights Secretariat and the methodology is also being used in the states of Ceará, Mato Gross do Sul, and Espírito Santo.

The Problem

Rio de Janeiro’s devastating and intractable favela community problems are widely known and reported worldwide, especially now that Rio will host the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. The city is the third largest in Latin America, its city-wide GDP is number two in Brazil and thirty in the world; it is the most visited city in South America.

Poverty, lawlessness, and drug lords controlling many of the 1,020 favelas in Rio have been allowed to continue for years, as the government tacitly admitted its inability to govern the favelas; crime has been rampant with murder rates among the highest in the world, and alleged deaths at the hands of police from 2005 to 2007 (1,200 per year) were nearly four times higher than all alleged murders by police in the U.S. High numbers of police were also killed during this same period. Youth are both the greatest victims and perpetrators of urban violence in Brazil. According to the Brazilian Institute of Geography, in 2010 youth between the ages of 15 and 24 made up 36.6 percent of the country’s victims of violent deaths.

Over the years, the police have come to see the communities as lawless territories filled with criminals not to be trusted, while the community, especially youth, view the police as invaders who use and abuse their authority with impunity; making few distinctions between community citizens and criminals. But behind these stereotypes of mistrust and intolerance there is a more complex reality. Favela communities have problems with poor schools, high drop out rates, terrible healthcare, and a shocking lack of basic infrastructure and housing—all problems the state has failed to address. But, when all other public support has failed, and the police are called, they are expected to make these problems go away.

The Rio Police Department has a long and proud tradition, it was created 202 years ago with two responsibilities—preventing and investigating crimes. But with the striking levels of lawlessness, the police department has focused primarily on investigating crimes to determine how they were committed, and who is responsible.

Prevention and community outreach were deemphasized for decades, and the few new programs piloted did not succeed. “Community Policing,” which was widely perceived as successful in flagship cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and Tokyo and replicated to many cities around the world, were brought to Rio but failed. The only community outreach programs in place today are Units for Police Pacification (UPPs), which are police base stations located inside some key favelas, but UPPs are viewed more as fortresses against the enemy, rather than outreach to the community.

The Strategy

Beto’s strategy to break down misconceptions between the police and favela communities and to humanize the police includes three basic steps.

First, Beto creates open forms of dialogue, which over three months of Chats, gradually allow police, ex-convicts, and youth to see each other in ways that build mutual understanding, change attitudes, and then, change behaviors. After perfecting this process for four years, he formalized it into Chats in which one police person and an ex-convict go to schools together, and talk about their stereotypes of each other. Thanks to careful mediation by the police and ex-convict, every follow-up Chat deepens the dialogue and encourages youth to bring their own stories to the table, thus helping to instill a sense of responsibility for their own choices. The Chats quickly engaged and impacted the youth. Beto then formed a multidisciplinary group of teachers, psychologists, and social workers to broaden and deepen their effectiveness and also to reach out to youth not attending school.

Next, Beto focuses on institutionalizing these programs and changing attitudes within the police department. As a police officer, Beto knew that change could not be sustained by an informal program, no matter how exciting and effective; these efforts must be institutionalized and embedded within the police department. He also knew it had to be a separate department with operating autonomy, seperate funding, reporting directly to the police chief. Since the chief is a senior police professional appointed by the governor, the new department also had to be formally approved and supported by political authorities.

Beto’s first step toward a new department was to persuade the chief to invite 400 senior officers to a Chat seminar. This seminar was unprecedented in the police department—a fourth level police person asking the chief to request the attendance of all of his department heads and inspectors throughout Rio. These hardened police leaders were shocked to see police colleagues in a spontaneous dialogue with ex-convicts which led to understanding and breaking down of prejudices. Symbolically, Beto’s greatest achievement from these seminars was to win over the head of the elite anti-kidnapping unit. Widely acclaimed for its incredible success at building such competence in investigation, the anti-kidnapping unit told victims’ families not to pay a ransom and promised they would rescue the victims, which they did with astonishing success. The unit’s chief told Beto that his Chat program was ten times more effective than everything his department had accomplished and the chief became one of the ten most active police participants in the Chat program.

Beto’s strategy also includes humanizing the police and building trust in the favela communities by establishing a series of partnerships with COs, the private sector and the state government—recognizing that the problem must involve a broad group of actors to succeed. Beto and the police department signed a series of unprecedented agreements with the Secretaries of Education, Social Action and Human Rights, Natura, a respected private sector company, the governor, and the police chief.

The police officers involved in this initiative volunteer their services and Beto has the full support of his department to dedicate the time needed to implement his vision. The resources needed to implement the program, such as books, institutional materials, and an interactive website, are funded through a partnership with Natura.

Beto’s Chat program currently operates in 100 schools and has reached 20,000 young people per year since 2008. Over the years, he has worked with many more schools. Beto has been invited to form Chat programs in four other states in Brazil, and the Chat program was recently highlighted at a Latin America Conference on Police and Society. While this recognition has given Beto visibility and credibility inside and outside the police department, he knows he will not succeed until he has institutionalized his prevention and community outreach approaches within the police department, in the communities, and with the broad support of the public, private, and citizen sectors. Beto is well on his way to creating Brazil’s first autonomous Prevention and Community Outreach Department within the police department. And to replacing a social disfunction that has poisoned Brazilian society for generations with the effective, publically supported policy essential to democratic fair societies.

The Person

Beto was born and raised in Rio as the youngest child in a working-class family. He went to a technical school, married and worked in his father-in-law’s construction materials store, located at the edge of some of the largest favelas in Rio. Beto worked there for ten years and transformed the business from a small five-person store selling mainly over the counter, to a well computerized, twenty-eight person business which sold wholesale to small stores throughout the favelas. Beto developed customers, delivered materials, gave credit, and participated deeply in the life of the favelas. But his family always encouraged him to seek more education and he wanted to become part of something bigger than himself, so he studied law at night at the university, while continuing to work during the day.

One day, Beto heard that the police department would be holding entrance exams, and wanted candidates with college degrees. He was one of 80,000 applicants for 3,000 openings. Beto finished at 1,700 but the government only had money for 1,500 officers and would hold another entrance exam for the 1,500 spots. Beto became one of the leaders of the group of cadets who hadn’t been admitted, holding marches, meeting with government officials, and meeting the police chief on various occasions. This obstacle convinced Beto that being a member of the police department was where he wanted to be, as it embodied being part of something bigger.

Beto and the other 1,500 were finally admitted, just as he finished his law degree. These 3,000 new police, of a 10,000 member police force, had a different profile than most, with more education, more experience before joining, and it was clear that the department wanted to shake things up and go in different directions.

In an unusual step, the chief called Beto and invited him to be part of a high profile group that would be trained by rotating through various key administrative departments, and reported directly to the chief. Beto wanted to work in one of the elite operational divisions and had been offered an operational role, but the chief offered him the opportunity to rotate through those groups as well. Beto didn’t realize it at the time but the chief had identified him as a high potential change agent within the department.

Beto’s rotations included being part of the elite SWAT team, which was called into a favela to respond to reports of shooting involving police. He was once part of a major gun battle that ended with the deaths of 19, 18 and 16 year-old youths. Beto was devastated and felt he had to do something, but he noticed the indifference with which most of the SWAT team treated their deaths. Beto knew he had to reach out to the community youth, and so he convinced a colleague to go with him to the school where he had studied many years before. He did this on his own time, didn’t have a clear idea of what to talk about but knew he had to listen and start a dialogue, rather than merely telling them that crime and drugs don’t pay.

Soon the teachers at Beto’s school opened the doors for him at other schools and the program grew. A colleague suggested the name “Chat” for the program.

The chief who supported Beto was replaced by another chief, and then another, but they allowed the program to continue. Beto’s first chief was arrested for corruption and Beto, along with many others, were investigated, given excellent reviews and declared innocent of any illicit involvement. This investigation gave Beto and his program more credibility and in 2008, the new chief allowed ten officers to participate along with ex-convicts from AfroReggae.

Beto has gained a mass of support within the police department and within the community that was the “something bigger than himself” he sought for ten years. He will not rest until he sees his approach to humanize the police embedded in new institutions within the police department and favela communities.