OPINION

Policing the police is not enough

“The widespread demand is to overhaul the system.” Protests rage against violence by the police, in New York.AP

“The widespread demand is to overhaul the system.” Protests rage against violence by the police, in New York.AP  

The deliberate violence against a hapless African-American, George Floyd, by white police officers in Minneapolis, leading to his death, was the trigger for the worldwide protests we see today against alleged institutionalised racism in policing across nations. It all started when a convenience store employee called 911 alleging that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a $20 counterfeit note. A patrol party responding to the call intercepted Floyd. After being forced out of his car, the 46-year-old was pinned to the ground by Derek Chauvin, a police officer. Mr. Chauvin pressed his knee on Floyd’s neck for as long as nine minutes despite the victim’s agonising cries to be released. Floyd then became motionless, but Mr. Chauvin continued to pin him down. Floyd was declared dead when he was taken to the hospital. The whole episode was caught on camera leaving no doubt about the facts of the brutality. Mr. Chauvin has been charged with second-degree murder, while three other officers have been charged with aiding and abeting second-degree murder.

Protests against police excesses

The magnitude of protests across the U.S. – including in Washington, outside the White House; London; and elsewhere in Europe – has surprised many observers. This is not because the protests are not justified. It is the unison and spontaneity of the outcry that has bewildered many. A number of police assaults/killings in the past, such as of Rodney King (1991), Eric Garner (2014) and Corey Jones (2015), had triggered huge protests too, but these episodes evaporated from public memory quickly. Going by the volume and intensity of demonstrations against the police atrocity against Floyd, it looks like this incident has evoked universal disdain and will linger for a long, long time.

The demands from various quarters include complete dismantling of the police in many jurisdictions or total or partial defunding of the force. What is significant this time is that a large number of white people are participating in the marches against the police in the U.S. and U.K. This marks the difference in reaction to Floyd’s killing compared to past police misbehaviour. The average American is stoutly opposed to politicising the issue and has therefore lambasted President Donald Trump’s threat to use the military to quell the protests, especially destruction of public property. A New York Times senior editor has had to quit because he allowed the publication of an incendiary article by a Republican Senator endorsing the use of the military to stop the protests.

The widespread demand is to overhaul the system. This may sound a cliché and an impractical and emotional reaction to an isolated incident. Several such demands have been made in the past in many countries, including India, whenever these countries have been rocked by police excesses. Police Commissions have come and gone. Their ponderous recommendations have not brought about radical changes to the way we are policed. This is the reason why discerning police scholars and practitioners are cynical about the prospects of making the police behave in a more civilised manner.

An eternal dilemma

When demanding reform, many communities are vague. When incidents such as the Floyd killing take place, people demand total abjuring of force by the police. When there is a spurt in crime or a particularly horrific incident such as the gang rape of a young student in Delhi in December 2012, there is criticism that the police have become too soft. When there is a sharp increase in crime anywhere, the police are called ineffective. This is the dilemma that the average policeman faces in many parts of the world. When an imaginative Police Commissioner such as William Bratton in New York uses tough methods such as ‘stop and frisk’ to bring down crime, there is strident criticism that the mechanics was an exercise in profiling African-Americans. So, how does one strike a balance between stern and effective maintenance of order without violating human rights? How much is too much force is an eternal dilemma.

Many members of the the public plead for efficient policing, with the caveat that such a style should not hurt human sensitivities. I know of judges who denounce police employment of ‘third degree’ in trying to solve a crime and then themselves demand tough questioning of a suspect when they happen to be the victims of a crime, especially theft or burglary. This is the lack of ethics that clouds perceptions in high places in public systems.

There is absolutely no case for ignoring what happened in Minneapolis. It has to be studied with all seriousness. However, there is no evidence that the four policemen who went berserk were acting on instructions from their supervisors. This is why such incidents are aberrations; they are acts committed by individual policemen. The only question is, if such events happen far too often and nearly in the same police force, what has the leadership done to correct the malady? We know that if an Inspector General of Police or Director General of Police encourages violence in a discreet manner, the message goes down the ranks leading to the torture of innocent citizens. This is what the leadership should be wary of. We are not unfamiliar with some senior police officers displaying a psychosis of violence that leads to ugly episodes like the one in Minneapolis. Such policemen need to be removed at the earliest stages of their career. Otherwise the government or the police chief gets a bad name.

Role of political establishment

Many academics, especially psychologists, have advocated the continuous indoctrination of policemen at the grassroots level to convince them of the need to avoid high-handedness in dealing with members of the civil society as well as crime suspects. Nothing short of indoctrination will work. But such exercises can be effective only for some years in a policeman’s life. The impact of such exercises breaks down over time when officers are faced with stressful situations or when they are pitted against unorthodox and brutal supervisors who don’t believe in civilised interaction with society.

Ultimately, it is often a case of culture. We do not know the culture of the current formations in the Minneapolis Police. The situation is too complex for the offer of a credible formula. Nevertheless the problem is grave involving the whole of humanity. Police leadership should be advised to resist the temptation of giving up the cause without a fight. It is difficult to underestimate the role in this case of the political establishment. If the latter is slack and it is complicit in illegitimate violence, all of us are doomed.

R.K. Raghavan is a former CBI Director and a graduate in criminal justice from Temple University, Philadelphia

Recommended for you