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Anger rises after spate of Rio police killings

RIO DE JANEIRO, July 17 (Reuters) - A series of killings by apparently trigger-happy police in Rio de Janeiro have sparked anger, protests and fears that a long-running conflict in the slums is spreading to middle-class neighborhoods.

With city elections in October, police brutality and incompetence have put pressure on the state governor and his security chief, whose "confrontation" policy for drug gangs has sharply raised the number of slayings by police.

Polls have shown public support for the tough policy, but violence has spread from the hillside slums to richer areas of Brazil's second-biggest city and tourist capital.

"People want action because now they are not just killing people at the top of the hill, they are killing people at their door," Margarida Pressburger, head of the Rio Bar Association's Human Rights Commission, said.

"It's completely the result of the wrong policy and the security secretary we have, because the policy of the government is to kill."

Two police officers were placed under internal arrest this month after they opened fire on a car carrying a mother and two children, killing 3-year-old Joao Roberto Soares.

The officers originally said there had been an exchange of fire with criminals, but State Security Secretary Jose Beltrame later acknowledged they had targeted the wrong vehicle.

"My wife threw a child's bag through the window to show there were children. But they went ahead and shot ... what kind of police is this?" said Paulo Roberto Soares, the father of the dead boy.

GROWING TOLL

On Monday night, police killed Luiz Carlos Soares da Costa, 36, after firing on his car, which had been hijacked. Television pictures showed police dragging Da Costa, who was still alive, from the car by his feet and letting his head smash against the road.

"The policy of shoot first and ask questions later," read a headline in Extra newspaper. "Police kill another innocent," said the O Dia tabloid.

Globo newspaper reported that six police officers are being investigated in the June disappearance of engineer Patricia Amieiro Branco de Franco, 24, whose empty car was found riddled with bullets in a canal in posh Barra da Tijuca.

A 28-year-old street vendor was killed and his 4-year-old daughter wounded in a shoot-out between police and suspected drug traffickers in the swanky Leblon beach area on Wednesday.

Gov. Sergio Cabral says the policy of confrontation, one reason for a 25 percent increase, to 1,330, in the number of suspects killed by police last year, is needed to counter the heavily armed drug gangs that control the slums, or favelas.

Beltrame has acknowledged some police mistakes, calling the 3-year-old's death disastrous, but critics say one cause is the failure to provide better pay and training for the notoriously corrupt police.

A group of police were sent back to school this week for training with the elite BOPE police unit, where they were reminded of basic procedures such as not to shoot at a car before knowing who is inside it.

Nancy Cardia, vice coordinator at the Center for the Study of Violence in Sao Paulo, said support for Cabral's hard-line policies was showing signs of fading given the lack of progress in draining the favelas of arms or the drugs that fund them.

"How can you call this a successful policy?" she said.

"And the number of civilians being killed who have nothing to do with anything is just going up."

Editing by Patricia Zengerle

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