Law and Society

Police Brutality – It is Time To Rethink

Krishnavarna C S

There exists a need to address the issue of police brutality globally


With the global community condemning the unfortunate death of George Floyd at the hands of police officers, the law enforcement agencies across the US have come under considerable public scrutiny. US police agencies are infamous for their record of extensive use of force on unarmed civilians, especially on the minority and vulnerable communities. However, civilians facing grave violence due to encounter with the police is not a novel phenomena exclusive to the US. It remains deeply entrenched in the history of various countries and continues to persist and threaten their integrity.

Theo L and Adama Traore in France, Allan Adam in Canada, Darren Cumberbatch in the United Kingdom, James Mureithi in Kenya are few of the many victims of extreme police brutality across the world. The violent oppression by the police over the protests against recent extradition bill in Hong Kong, over the contentious Citizenship Amendment Act in India, the yellow vests movement in France, and of the latest Black Lives Matter protests in the US, showcases the immediate need to rethink the method of policing all over the world.

Further, fake encounters, custodial deaths and their subsequent cover-ups, though known to many, the authorities continue to neglect the gravity of issues. Recently, in India, father-son duo Jayaraj and Fenix, arrested for allegedly violating lockdown norms, faced grave torture from the police. The police personnel subjected them to severe physical abuse. They succumbed to their injuries after two days in police custody.

The brutality exhibited by the police is cumulative of many factors. First, the violent nature of the institution is traceable to the inception of such police organisations. The French police had unique methods of surveillance and repression, which they used overseas in the former French colonies. These techniques found their way to their homeland, and the police unscrupulously applied them to the ordinary neighbourhoods. In colonial India, the Police Act of 1861 established the institution of police; however, they focused on crowd pacification and coercive order keeping instead on public service and crime reduction. Likewise, the British colonial government in Kenya used the police to further the interests of their administration, which espoused violence. Despite independence, the practice continues in Kenya till date. Similarly, in the US, policing finds its roots in the slave patrols in the 18th century, the vigilantes known for their extreme violence. These historical reasons undoubtedly influenced the development of institutional systems of police training, management and culture.

Secondly, the police officers in most countries are trained in military-style tactics and thinking. It has led to a militarized response to routine police activities. The consequences of militarized police mentality are deadly as they use violent tactics and non-negotiable force over compromise, mediation, and peaceful conflict resolution. There is a growing emphasis on the need to counter the escalation of such police confrontation. Demilitarisation is one such method. Curtailing the encounters with the police could also result in fewer civilian deaths that occur during interactions with police. For instance, the Canadian police accidentally killed a mentally ill elderly when called for assistance. The training the police receive are for extreme distress situations. Hence, they should never be the first responders in such incidents.

Thirdly, the inadequacies of police academies are another causal factor. There is no classroom engagement with human rights, mental health issues and diversity, among others in police academies. As the enforcers of the law, the police must educate themselves of the society they are duty-bound to serve. Hence, they need to build a rapport with intercultural communities. In Germany, the police trainees learn in unsparing detail about the shameful legacy of policing under the Nazis. It has brought a welcoming change as it helps in preventing a painful past from repeating itself.

The insular culture of the police is yet another factor. For instance, in the US, there exists an informal rule among police officers known as the blue wall of silence. The code mandates the police from reporting their colleagues’ misconduct, error or crimes. It is a breach of professional ethics, and such practices coupled with no accountability encourages the cases of police brutality to go unchecked. To ensure accountability, internal and external disciplinary mechanisms requires reform, more so the procedural safeguards need examination. Implementation of body-cameras is another way to enhance accountability. The technology proved to be instrumental in reducing the use of force by police, says a randomised experimental study conducted in 2014.

Nevertheless, the contributing factors also include the character traits of the individuals. One of the leading theories of questionable police behaviour is unconscious bias. Professors of psychology at the University of Florida, Kate Ratliff and Colin Smith conducted research and study on white participants having no preference between black and white people. The study revealed that 70 per cent of them show pro-white preferences. These biases are hard to address as it is beyond the control of a person’s conscious. Therefore, the recruitment procedures must test predictive factors of violence. Racial bias, severe aggression, the machismo of the recruits need due consideration to vet out the bad apples in the initial stages. Former Supreme Court Justice of Canada, Frank Iacobucci, submitted a report to include screening in for necessary traits such as emotional intelligence, tolerance of diversity, empathy,  and patience during recruitment.

Moreover, a wholly democratised and decentralised system of law enforcement is necessary to improve accountability. Civilian oversight into the matters of the police will ensure responsibility as they become answerable to the community they serve. There will be no scope for misuse of power as it guarantees mutual trust between the police and the civilians. These changes must receive the support of adequate legislation as well. Otherwise, it will fail to hold ground during the tests of adversaries.

The Way Ahead

The need to acknowledge and address the cause of police brutality is paramount, but for reforms to materialise it requires scientific data. According to Tracey Meares, founding director of the Justice Collaboratory at Yale Law School, policing is still in a science-free zone. Most offices do not have the practice of collecting data systematically. Researchers are keen to follow the momentum the protests have raised; however, without ample evidence to support new policies, the reforms might miss the mark. Therefore, it becomes critical that police agencies mandate the compulsory collection of data. Only with sufficient data and rigorous studies can interventions such as training to de-escalate tense interactions will work.

The history of Germany teaches a valid lesson. Under the rule of Nazis, the police were the crucial tool of the authoritarian state. Police officers rounded up the enemies of the state, deported Jews, guarded ghettos and murdered many. The police battalions on the frontline alone killed more than a million people. The state justified the police brutality and perpetuated violence. After the second world war, it took the police years to accept the cruelty of their acts during the Holocaust. It is a learning process or rather an unlearning one. It takes years of effort to reform the existing practices. Despite all suggestions and reforms, to truly transform institutions like the police, the values of the society must change. A change in society will reflect in its law administration. For police is the mirror of society, society must evolve.

The author is a student at the National University of Advanced Legal Studies (NUALS), Kochi.

Picture Credit: Damien Conway

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