efe-epaRio de Janeiro, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro recorded a 49 percent increase in civilian deaths at the hands of police in July compared to the year before, the highest number on record since tracking began in 1998, official sources said Wednesday.

A total of 194 people were killed by the police in July, equating to more than six individuals dying in Rio during police interventions each day of the month, according to figures released by the Institute of Public Security (ISP), an agency linked to the regional government.

For the first six months of the year the number stood at 881 people who died at the hands of police.

Meanwhile, no police officer died on duty during the seventh month of the year, compared to July last year, when four died.

Rio police, both civil and military, have been heavily criticized by NGOs and the Ombudsman's Office for their abuse of power. They have been accused of breaking into homes without a warrant and shooting from helicopters during police operations, among other examples.

According to the ISP, the number of malicious homicides in July was 309, a decline of 25 percent compared to the same month in 2018. In the first seven months of the year, homicides fell by 23 percent to 2,392 deaths, compared to the same period in 2018.

The number of homicides in the first seven months of the year is the lowest for this period since 1991.

In July, vehicle thefts also fell by 9 percent compared to the same month last year and street robberies were down 8 percent.

The data was announced one day after a 20-year-old man, allegedly suffering from depression, hijacked a bus with 37 people on board. He threatened to set it alight and was killed by a sniper from the elite Rio police group. All hostages were rescued safely.

The controversial intervention of the sniper once again put a spotlight on the legitimization of police violence against crime, an issue endorsed by Brazil's far-right president Jair Bolsonaro and one of his closest supporters, Rio state governor Wilson Witzel.

Although Congress has managed to curb, at least momentarily, the decrees with which Bolsonaro seeks to relax the possession and carrying of arms in Brazil (one of his campaign promises was to exercise the right to "self-defense"), the far-right leader has not abandoned his intention to promote the use of guns.

Since assuming power in January, Bolsonaro has threatened to pass laws that will allow police and civilians to “shoot suspected offenders” without fear of prosecution.

He has also made it clear that in his opinion, Brazil's police should be decorated for using guns, not taken to court. EFE-EPA