Understanding Of and Creating Policy Remedies for Police Brutality
The death of George Floyd at the knee of a Minneapolis police officer towards the end of May triggered large scale protests as well as changes were never seen before in the United States. As on July 3, estimates suggest that between 15 to 26 million people were partaking in the activism within the US alone, apart from the citizenry of 60 or so other countries who were raising their voice against police brutality meted out to marginalized and subjugated minorities not only in the US but elsewhere as well. 1 In response to this unprecedented call for and to action, laws and policy changes have been announced, proposed and voted for that target immunity for police officers, systemic racism, police misconduct and broad-based policing changes. Several local US police departments banned the use of the chokehold, the same that led to the death of Floyd. 2,3 A veto-proof group of Minneapolis City Council members pledged to dismantle the city’s police force as they trusted that reformation of it was not possible under its current form and the US House of Representatives passed a Democrats-drafted bill on police reform. 4,5 With such changes happening on a large scale, it becomes important to understand the context of police brutality, its incidence and impacts, changes necessary to reform the same and why certain sections of the population are more at risk of receiving the same.
“Police violence can be defined as any unjustified or intentional harassment, verbal assault, physical/mental injury, property damage, or death suffered because of interaction with the police or the intentional inaction of the police.” 6 Police brutality, on the other hand, is just one iteration of a more extreme version of police violence. A glance at the history of policing in the US provides a glimpse into today’s police forces in the States and their discriminatory and prejudiced behavior against historically oppressed identities. In the early 18th century in the US, a system was institutionalized in its northern colonies that established a watch over native Americans. 7 This volunteer-based informal police force was set up to protect against and keep out any “unwanted colonists.” 8 Within the South of the country then, patrol police or slave patrols were established to capture, beat up, ward off and return runaway slaves to their owners. 9 Such an institution prevented mass gatherings, unionization and collectivization of the bonded and entrapped laborers. In modern society, these forms of policing, while not institutionally recognized, are prevalent through the behaviors they espouse and necessitate. This explains why minority groups like African Americans are harassed simply for their presence in affluent neighborhoods and doubts as to their identification. The latter results in constant pestering, haranguing and abuse regarding papers that are the legal pathway to proving that persons are whom they say they are.
Even India’s coercive and discriminatory, heavily armed, militarized and centralized police machinery has a historical and colonial antecedent. The ruling East India Company had, in the 1850s, suggested the setting up of a police force in the country modelled on the Irish paramilitary police. 10 “In its services to the colonial ruling elite in a restless and violent country, its availability as an armed force under civilian direction, and its centralized organization, the Irish police model was ideally suitable for colonial India.” 11 Various government efforts have attempted to break the nexus of the vested interests of the political elite and police forces but the Police Commissions of 1860 and 1902 constituted under the British Raj, and the whims and fancies of the very same ruling establishment such as that of the Emergency-era Indira Gandhi have restricted and prevented any substantial reform from being enacted. These efforts include the Second Law Commission of 1855, the National Police Commission set up post the Emergency from 1977 to 1981, numerous committees such as the LP Singh group of 1979, the Julio Ribeiro, Padmanabhiah and Malimath committees of 1998, 1999, and 2000, respectively, and the Supreme Court-framed 2006 guidelines in response to a PIL filed by a former senior police official, Prakash Singh. 12 The Indian society of today houses the malaise of police violence in the form of archaic criminal laws and guidelines such as The Police Act, IPC and CrPC (under which ‘sedition’ is still a designated crime despite the same being passed in 1870), extremely prejudiced behavior and acts as witnessed in the impunity provided to the perpetrators of the lynching of Pehlu Khan and Mohammad Akhlaq and custodial deaths of Jayaraj and his son, Bennix, and the continued unabated proliferation of the Central Armed Police Forces, the cadre of security personnel responsible for maintaining internal peace as dictated to them by the Union home ministry.
Law enforcement forces are supposed to promote an inclusive agenda of public safety but prisons, the intentioned bastion of said policing, are utilised for the furthering of inappropriate, detrimental and punitive public health functioning policies in line with what histories of the establishment of such forces say. A report covering incarceration statistics of the US revealed that in 2019, 4.9 million people were put in prison. Out of this number, more than one-in-four were arrested more than once. Repeated arrests are “related to race and poverty, as well as high rates of mental illness and substance use disorders.” 13 The findings highlight how those who end up behind bars have multidimensional socioeconomic and health problems and require social service solutions and community remedies like mental health services and counselling. 14 These discriminatory practices extend to those who suffer from mental health illnesses as such sections of the population are more likely to be perceived as dangerous. They end up getting charged, arrested and jailed on a disproportionately larger scale than the wider population due to a mistaken belief that mental illness is associated with acts of violence or aggression. 15 Similar misconceptions plague those who are differently abled as well, as police forces are ill-equipped to deal with and perceive differential acts or behaviors that lead to a failure of compliance. 16 In India, the socioeconomic make-up of prisoners reveal congruent tales of prejudice: More than 65% of undertrial prisoners belonged to the SC, ST and OBC categories while 70% of the same kind of arrested personnel were either illiterate or semi-literate in 2016, the last year for which the National Crime Records Bureau recorded caste profile data. 17 This is apart from the findings that 68% of people in jail in the country were undertrial prisoners. 18 Such persons do not have the financial resources or network clout to secure bail. Therefore, this not only represents the loss of livelihoods for people who are anyway at risk due to their socioeconomic status but also vested interests behind the very act, ideology and policy of policing.
Police violence is, however, much more than just the act of putting people behind bars. It is about the manner of engagement of the police with the civilian population and the way people are treated by them. Such everyday behavior usually has a more defining impact on the nature of the relationship policing agents have with the persons they are supposed to protect. An aspect that is so commonplace ends up, therefore, exerting a considerable influence on the health and well-being of citizens, especially those who are underserved and disadvantaged since they also require the most attention and care. But, apart from historically and behaviorally discriminating against such marginalized populations as evidenced above, such behavior tends to harm the rest of the population as well. A study published in the Lancet revealed how the killing of an unarmed black person in a state in the US adversely impacted the mental health of all other black people in that very same state. 19 Moreover, an adverse and negative encounter with police in the States has been shown to percolate into the recipients’ perceptions and trust of other integral institutions such as healthcare. 20 Prejudiced behavior against a marginalized population not only acts as an indictment against the entire group but serves as a vivid reminder of the group’s shared and violent past with the very same forces. This then builds into the everyday trauma and anxiety already faced by ostracized sections - imagine waking up every day with the realization that you are more likely to get killed or encountered with by the police.
Such facets are important to consider as they establish the systemic nature of police violence and brutality. Systemic reforms cannot be rectified by piecemeal changes such as the abolition of the use of the chokehold by police forces or through the defunding of police departments. They necessitate the bringing about of ingrained and deep-seated behavioral sensitization and education of police forces. Social determinants of health, like one’s caste, socioeconomic or literacy status, cannot be catered to or treated by a top-down display of brute police force.
Empathy and attempts to understand the concerns of the disenfranchised are what are required instead, especially when those who are mentally ill are fearful of the police. 21 Professional counselling services are, however, prone to diagnose and detect a lower percentage of mental illness among marginalized populations. 22 This calls for nuanced and targetted approaches to health and well-being that enable an understanding of the local context of the underserved, such as the interdimensional nature of poverty or lack of education and their effects on the well-being of the disadvantaged. Tackling the issue at the primary care level, broadening and expanding the institutional healthcare delivery system and facilitating community interventions are policy changes that can effectuate a more inclusive impact on communities and their health as opposed to stringent and violent police forces.
By - Yash Budhwar Graphic By - Gayathri Nair
References/ Read More At -
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