In a controversial interview carried Monday on YouTube, Bolsonaro said he hoped Brazil's National Congress would approve his plan to expand a 1941 article in Brazil’s criminal code called “excludente de ilicitude,” or excluding unlawfulness.
“These guys are going to die in the streets like cockroaches,” Bolsonaro said, ”and that’s how it should be.”
But activists say the unusual criminal code already allows normally illegal acts to be deemed as legal under Brazilian law -- and there are fears that the proposed legislation would give even more power to police to kill without impunity.
“It will be a bloodshed, no question. It’s going to be a tragedy,” activist Tita de Paula told ABC News on Tuesday.
“We are already stigmatized,” said de Paula, who lives in Morro dos Prazeres, a favela in southern Rio de Janeiro. "We already have no way to address [these concerns]. What’s next for us? They will kill even more without distinction."
According to the Igarapé Institute, a Rio-based think tank, killings at the hands of police officers are at an all-time high. A study by the group found that police killings in Rio are at their highest point in two decades, with 434 killings by police in just the first three months of 2019.
But for Bolsonaro, the leader of the largest democracy in Latin America, Brazil has no other alternative to stop violence than to provide “legal cover” to police and other security officers so they can use lethal force in the line of duty without fear of prosecution.
Luis Henrique Machado, a criminal lawyer in Brazil's capital city of Brasilia, told ABC News that he fears an escalation of violence.
"The extension of permitted illegal activities [under the ] law sounds very dangerous for Brazil," Machado said. "In the case of a police operation, if innocent people are killed, their families will have no chance to ask for investigation."
The government will have "no power to control the way police operate in vulnerable situations,” he added.
According to a survey by the Violence Monitor, a project developed by the University of São Paulo, the Brazilian Public Security Forum and the news website G1, the number of violent deaths across the country dropped by 24% in the first quarter of this year compared to the same period in 2018. The number of murders, however, remains high.