Midnight sports as youth crime prevention in Brazil
What exactly are adolescents up to in the wee hours between 11pm and 2 am? In four of Brasilia's satellite cities they are playing sports.
The Midnight Sports project resulted from a partnership between the Public Security and Education Offices, implemented in the cities of Planaltina, Gama, Ceilandia and Samambaia, cities that sprang up in the periphery of Brasilia when Brazil's capital was built in the 1960s. Since its first days back in 1999, Midnight Sports has taken close to 538 thousand youths to the playing fields.
Planaltina was the first place elected because of its high gang-related crime indices and a high homicide rate: "We realized that there was basically no infrastructure for leisure and sports for youths and decided to build two centers, each set in the areas of highest gang violence," said Carlo Eduardo Paes, coordinator of Midnight Sports. According to Paes, in the first three months of operation there was a 20% drop in the rate of violent incidents in the community.
The project was conceived once it was noted that the highest proportion of crimes committed in the region took place between 11pm and 2 am.
Community friendly approach by the police is key to efficiency
All youths are free to take part of the project's activities. There is a bus service available as specific times and the transportation is free of charge. The only requirement is that youths go through a police search before going on board, a violence prevention procedure according to Paes that is intended to garantee security for all.
“The police officers who work with us are especially trained to interact with youths. They establish a connection to the community, and become more than mere agents of security, they also become positive role models," said Paes. According to the coordinator the police are trained to always engage in conversation with youths but not to act in a confrontational, information seeking, manner, even during the body searches. "It is important that the presence of the law enforcement, of the state, is felt in these areas as efficient and understanding, making sure, of course that it does not look like it is there as a favor," said Paes.
The project is also predicated on a network of professionals. Security professionals involved include the agents from the Fire Department as well as Civil and Military police. Psychologists and social service workers are also present, providing lectures on health and sexuality as well as counselling on family planning, contraception, prevention of STDs and drug abuse.
Providing care in place of punishment
One of the main guidelines of the Midnight Sports project is to chose inclusion over punishment. "It would be too harsh a punishment to simply expell youths who may get involved in offending from the project. It is our philosophy not to bar them because so often their lives are marked by exclusion. We are informed of who stops going to school through our partnership with the Office of Education. Our professionals follow up with visits to their homes to ask them why they are giving up on their schooling," said Paes.
This aspect is especially crucial to the project, because many of those being served are night-time students from poor communities. "They are invisible to our statistics, and there are very few projects that will track their academic progress, " said Paes.
An independent evaluation of the project was conducted from May to December 2006. 310 youths volunteered to answer questions out of the 500 youths currently enrolled in Midnight Sports. And the results are encouraging: only 13% admitted to having committed offenses during the eight years that the centers have been open.
Community integration with the police is key
Despite its success, Midnight Sports was initially faced with a fair amount of resistance. Local residents' associations found it hard to believe that the centers would not lead to increased police brutality in the area. And neighbours complained of the noise. “ We had a series of meetings with local leaders to overcome their scepticism and introduce the project. Nowadays our difficulties are in selecting which communities will host the sports centers from a pool of applicants”, said Paes.
Basic for the project's success are a fixed localle, good lighting and the evident presence of law enforcement. Community participation is crucial for the selection of the site of the project. Communities selected must prove they have a security council and that they are open to dialogue. “ Community security cannot be imposed top-down by the government, the community must take an active role of its own”, said Paes.
Translated by Lis Horta Moriconi