Can Police Brutality be Fixed?

By Okot Nyormoi

I Can’t breathe”. That was the cry of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 in Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA, as he was being suffocated by a white policeman who had his knee on his neck. It took eight minutes and 46 seconds for the police officer, Derek Chauvin, to commit murder so foul. Unlike many preceding murders of black Americans, this one had the honor of sparking worldwide outrage against police brutality. The knee on Floyd’s neck became a symbol of the knees of racism and dictatorship which harass, arrest, incarcerate, torture, and kill innocent people with impunity all over the world.

Massive worldwide demonstrations were held to demand justice for George Floyd and all other people murdered by the police: Freddie Gray and Eric Garner killed with chokeholds, Breona Taylor shot in her own house, Michael Brown, Rayshard Brooks and Trayvon Martin shot on the street, just to name some of the victims.

In the United States, the Black Lives Matter Movement is demanding justice for victims of police brutality, an end to police brutality, complete dismantling of unreformable police departments, defunding and retraining the police, removal of racially offensive monuments (confederate flag, statues of confederate generals) and improvement in the life conditions of minorities which render them vulnerable to police brutality and other calamity as the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Europe, protesters are demanding an end to racial discrimination against immigrants. In the former colonies, people are demanding the decolonization of the police institution and government accountability.

While we are justifiably outraged, we need to carefully reflect on the best way forward. Here, it must be understood that the police agency is a necessary constituent of a modern state. Theoretically, its function is to maintain law and order. Since it is not a stand-alone institution, the behavior of the police reflects the interests of whomever controls the state. Therefore, any proposal to address police brutality must be informed by a clear understanding of the power relationship between the people and those in charge of governance.

In the USA, the state has been controlled for a long time by white Christian men. black Americans, other minorities (Asians, Native Americans, and Middle Easterners) and women were not part of the power structure. To maintain control over the enslaved Africans and other minorities, they invented the ideology of white superiority. The police became a tool for enforcing unjust laws. Despite all the demands for justice by black Americans and their allies, police brutality driven by racism still exists after more than 400 years of struggle for justice.

In Russia and China, police brutality is different from that in the USA. It is ideologically motivated. To protect its interests, the Russian oligarchy uses the milisiya or FSB to harass, arrest, torture, jail and sometimes assassinate their victims with impunity. The assassinations of Yuriy Chervochkin in 2007 and Boris Nemtsov in 2015, are examples of ideologically motivated brutality against politicians who challenge the ruling oligarchy currently led by Putin.

Similarly, China has its share of police and military brutality. The brutal repression during the Cultural revolution between 1966-1976, the Tiananman Square massacre in 1989 and the current suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong are such examples of police and military oppression. Ethnic, racial, and religion-spurred police brutality also exist, albeit it to a lesser extent.

In developing countries, most police brutality is also politically motivated. Once the ruling group is considered a threat, unfair laws are enacted. The police and the military become the faithful implementers of orders from above. Unfortunately, such laws are selectively and brutally applied. An example is when the NRM-ruling party-dominated parliament in Uganda passed the Public Order Management Act of 2013, which was basically intended to politically cripple opposition parties. Violators are tear gassed, beaten, arrested, and sometimes shot dead with impunity.

In 2016, the Ugandan police and the military killed over 100 people in Kasese District, jailed and tortured many others for exercising their rights. In a naked display of immunity, the military officer who commanded the operation was later promoted for his role.

General Tumukunde, one of the architects of the NRM regime, seen here, is now crying, "NRM, we can't breathe" after he was jailed just because he declared his intention to run for the presidency in the 2021 election.

Sometimes, innocent citizens are horridly mistreated as was the case in Apaa, northern Uganda. Houses were burned, schools and a clinic were closed, and some people were beaten, killed, or displaced while trying to grab their land for a South African investor. No security personnel were prosecuted nor were the victims compensated for their losses.

Despite its illegality, torture while in detention is still rampant. In 2018-2019, there were at least 1,000 reported cases of police and military torture.

In war-torn states such as Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia, and Syria and other fragile states such as the DRC, Cameroon, CAR, etc., the police are severely under-funded, and the government usually has minimal control over them. Consequently, the police regularly demand bribes from taxi and bus drivers, small business owners, or curfew breakers. Those who cannot or refuse to pay bribes are frequently arrested, tortured, or even shot dead without any liability concerns.

In countries such as Mexico, the Philippines, and Colombia where narcotics are big business, police and the military are often employed in the so-called war on drugs. In the process, the police often harass, arrest detain, torture, or even kill innocent people if they are suspected of dealing in drugs or if they fail to pay bribes.

No doubt, police and military brutalities are unacceptable. Will any of the reform demands including: complete disbanding, defunding, or decolonizing, solve the problem? The answer is nuanced. The demand to completely abolish the police is impractical because of the many necessary functions of the police and the military. The challenge is to develop better policing models that require the elimination of racism, economic inequity, and antagonistic political contradictions which fuel violence without accountability. Whatever it is, it will require taking of control of the state to turn the police into a people friendly agency. That is indeed a tall order.