Violence and lawlessness were out of control in the southern hemisphere's largest city. Until a group of police officers in Sao Paulo, Brazil asked God to intervene.
Residents say what happened next can only be called "the God factor."
In 1997, television news scenes of police brutality in Sao Paulo were not uncommon. Brazilians were outraged by the images.
"Society was saying, 'Look, the police have to change. They can't go on like this,'" Capt. Alexander Terra, with the city's Military Police, recalled.
Sao Paulo, a city with more than 22 million people, not only suffered from an out-of-control police force. It was plagued with crime, corruption, and pockets of extreme poverty
The daily scene affected Lt. Joel Rocha.
"I remember that Major Terra and I would get off work many times, and as our work is right in downtown, it saddened our hearts to see people lying on the ground, the homeless people," Lt. Rocha said. "That's when we made a pact and said: 'Let's set aside a specific time each week and make it a priority to pray together.'"
Changing Hearts, Attitudes
As Lt. Rocha and Capt. Terra began to pray, Terra reached out to the public with a "community policing" program. He also began looking for ways to change the police officers' attitudes.
"A policeman who works with peace in his heart will produce peace in his community," Police Chaplain Robson Melchior affirmed.
Terra called on the Christian Officers Association for help, a support group for Sao Paulo's officers by officers, which now has 1,500 members.
As Christian police prayed for each other, and for their communities, they started winning the war on crime.
"We've been able to lower the murder rate by 60 percent in this region," Police Col. Oswaldo Sorge noted.
"In just one arrest, we netted 520 kilos of marijuana, plus arms and ammunition," Col. Joviano Lima added. "We captured more than 30 people in the operation, so the results were fantastic."
These radical breakthroughs attracted researcher George Otis, Jr., who met with police commanders,
"For what turned out to be a very lengthy, military-style briefing on what God had been doing in the city over the last four or five years, this commander gave me a big Brazilian bear hug, tears coming down his cheeks," Otis said. "And he said, 'Now I want you to go into the city and film this story and show it to the world."
Otis took the challenge, beginning in "Freguesia do O," once one of Sao Paulo's most dangerous neighborhoods. Get the documentary, A Force for Change.
Col. Sorge described it as "an area where the bandits had complete freedom to act. There were homicides and massacres."
Local pastor Marco da Silva said the community was "more frightened with each passing day. Our families stayed locked inside their homes, afraid even to send their kids to school."
The situation was so bad, the police gathered local pastors and told them the church had failed to do its job. That led to heart-searching prayer, repentance, and a new era of cooperation.
From that time on, the neighborhood and the police department began to change.
"Today we are harvesting the results, very important results, which include the transformation of this unit from the chaos that used to prevail here," Col. Sorge said.
"The community is beginning to desire more contact with the police," Pastor da Silva agreed. "And this has been demonstrated by an increase in safety, and a decrease in violence."
Energized by what they were seeing God do, Christian officers and pastors together began visiting families in crisis.
And God has intervened, Officer Lucia da Silva Vera insists.
"Their lives have been changed; their marriages restored. The Lord has delivered their children from drugs, from the depths of sin," Vera said.
Embracing the 'God Factor'
Results like these prompted changes in Sao Paulo's Police Academies. Officers began studying biblical principles, and how to partner with churches to change their communities.
Sao Paulo's success attracted police commanders from other parts of Brazil.
"There is a great hunger and appetite, amongst law enforcement people to hear about this 'God factor,'" Otis said.
The same "God factor" that's using Christian police to transform Sao Paulo.
"Now I understand that the things that God wants to do here he wants to do through men, and I am one of those men!" Lt. Rocha said.
"I believe that God changes history," Col. Sorge said. "God changes people. God transforms the hearts of people. I believe this because God changed my history."
*Originally aired June 25, 2010.