Human Rights Watch has found police violence is on the rise in Rio de Janeiro with evidence suggesting many alleged shootouts between police and criminals are in fact extrajudicial killings, a perennial issue that takes on increased importance as the Olympic Games near.
Police in Rio de Janeiro state killed at least 645 people in 2015, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch titled "'Good Cops Are Afraid': The Toll of Unchecked Police Violence in Rio de Janeiro." (pdf) Although this figure represents less than half the number of reported killings by police in 2007, it is a substantial increase from the approximately 400 deaths in 2013. Police violence has continued to rise in 2016, with 322 deaths at the hands of police in the first five months of the year.
During the course of its investigation -- which included 88 interviews conducted between November 2015 and May 2016 and analyzing cases of suspected police abuse -- Human Rights Watch "found substantial credible evidence that many persons killed in alleged shootouts were in fact executed by police officers."
Officers suspected of extrajudicial killings rarely face punishment, according to Human Rights Watch, which leads to greater levels of overall insecurity.
"As long as there's no accountability, there will continue to be officers who commit extrajudicial executions, making the job of policing Rio more difficult and dangerous for all the rest," said Maria Laura Canineu, Brazil director at Human Rights Watch.
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High rates of violence and impunity among Brazilian police is not new, nor is it unique to Rio de Janeiro. Officers in the state of São Paulo, for example, killed more people over the last 20 years than the entire US police force during the same time span.
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But the report's findings are especially concerning given the buildup of security forces across the city in preparation for the Olympic games, which Rio will host next month. Shootouts between police and organized crime groups are already taking place on a nearly daily basis. The deployment of approximately 85,000 police and military to provide security during the Olympics could end up turning Rio into a veritable pressure cooker.
Rio's police are not just perpetrators of violence; they are also becoming more frequent victims of the city's growing insecurity. According to Pauta Do Dia, a Rio crime monitoring blog, at least 55 on- and off-duty police officers were killed in the city during the first six month of 2016, a nearly five-fold increase from the number killed during the same period in 2015.