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Police Brutality: Not as American as apple pie

man wearing black officer uniform

If you’ve been on the Internet anywhere over the past few weeks, you’ve probably seen the scourge of protests surrounding police brutality following the death of George Floyd. While police brutality is systemic in the US, it’s far from the only country to be impacted by extrajudicial violence and police brutality that target communities based on their race, class or religion. In fact, police systems across the world, in both developed and developing countries tend to engage in some form of excessive force or brutality and often get away with it due to their status under the law. This has also been the reason that many have called for police to be defunded or even abolished across the world, or at the very least for severe reform.

To understand this better, we will go through five examples- the United Kingdom, Australia, India, the Philippines and Brazil to gain an insight into how police power is abused around the world. These countries vary in ranking across tables but were selected due to the fact that they are not an occupied or war-torn country (though by some definitions, Australia falls under this) and instances of police brutality tend to target certain groups rather than being pervasive. The definition of what police brutality constitutes changes across the country, but always involves some degree of violence that is more than necessary for the situation and that is sometimes fatal.

UK

Before even trying to understand excessive police force in the UK, it’s important to understand the contemporary role that the UK has played in the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests. The US is one of the biggest consumers of UK produced crowd control ammunition, which includes the sale of tear gas. Tear gas has been controversially used by the police during protests, largely because it temporarily degrades your lungs health, which is especially concerning during a pandemic where the virus impacts your lungs.

In terms of understanding excessive police force in the UK, it is easy to presume that since most police officers in the UK are unarmed, excessive force does not exist. However, as George Floyd’s and many other cases suggest, there is no need for a firearm in order to take life. Jimmy Mubenga, Rashan Charles and Edson Da Costa were all black men who had been restrained by police officers and died due to asphyxiation (or related causes). These are only three cases out of hundreds that gained some degree of publicity. Simeon Francis, which is the most recent case to have been published, echoed the same “I Can’t Breathe” phrase when he was arrested for unknown reasons by Devon and Cornwall police. His death in police custody is also reflective of the broader trend that BAME detainees are disproportionately likely to be victims of force in prisons.  While police brutality is not as prevalent and there is not the same prison complex system that the US has, the UK still has a significant crisis of excessive police force, particularly targeting young black men.

India

Police brutality has been a serious issue in the smaller towns and villages in India, but came to a head during the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) in December 2019. Protestors in the northern states were being met with batons and tear gas, much like the “crowd control techniques” that are being used in the US, often targeting predominantly Muslim neighbourhoods, like Muzaffarnagar. In these neighbourhoods, dozens of peaceful Muslim protestors or even bystanders have been shot at, beaten and have their houses raided by the police force, at the prompting of the state minister. In the countrywide lockdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, police brutality has again come to a head where, in particular, rural to urban migrants who have been forced to travel back to their home on foot have been particularly subject to the recent wave of police brutality, from being beaten by batons or being forced to crawl. India controlled Kashmir has been another key site for police brutality (along with military brutality) where extreme police violence by teargas and batons has been used as a means of continually suppressing dissident voices which has been heightened during COVID-19, especially since it has been difficult to communicate messages about social distancing from the Central Government. Violence is considered to be a central part of what it means to be a police officer in India and to add to that, many junior officers in the force believe that Muslims and migrants are naturally inclined to commit crimes. Police forces in India are deeply biased and often feel that unnecessary brutality is part of their job.

You can read more about Kashmir and police brutality here and here.

Brazil

Brazil’s capital Rio De Janeiro has been a hotbed for police activity, especially under the Bolsanaro leadership who have been willing to “dig graves” in order to stop crime. In fact, between January and April 2020, 606 people have already been killed by the police based on their internal count (suggesting that this number is likely to be much higher). During the COVID-19 pandemic, this has largely targeted community-run food distribution centres as areas of perceived “threat” due to one or two people in the entire neighbourhood potentially carrying handguns. The shifting of the blame onto the individual as a pertinent threat is the most common reason cited by the police forces behind the significantly high rates of police killings. However, as one New York Times research indicates, nearly half of the bodies studied (but not counting those who are still alive despite having faced police violence) were shot in the back, showing that in most cases victims were running away from the police, thus, not posing an active threat. Richer neighbourhoods like Copacabana seem to be completely unaffected by the level of police violence, however, favelas nearby tend to be the hotbed of crime. This targeting of poor communities sows more mistrust in poorer groups and actually forces more criminal organisations to come up in order to defend themselves.

Australia

Australia, much like the UK, does not have the same level of rampant police brutality as the US due to the reduced prevalence of firearms, but it’s far from absent. As a state that “settled” Aboriginal Indigenous lands, Aboriginal Australians have often been the victims of unfair policing. In fact, several statistics show that they tend to make a disproportionate percentage of prison populations and deaths in custody, especially for juveniles due to inhumane treatment resulting in physical and/or mental health issues. In early June, an Indigenous teenager was kicked at and restrained by three police officers for a verbal threat while they were investigating a separate crime and this is just one of the few cases this year. However, despite formal investigations no police officer has been held criminally responsible for Aboriginal deaths – with those who have been arrested on suspicion often settling their way out of these cases and pleading not guilty. Most Aboriginal campaigners in Australia claim that the issue of police brutality against their communities is much more rampant than what is publicly stated. This can be attributed to the fact that many people have little faith in the Australian police, suspecting that they simply do not file cases.

Philippines

Police brutality in the Philippines is much more overt than any of the examples discussed here. President Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” policy has often encouraged the police to ruthlessly kill in order to eradicate drug addicts across the country. In 2017, there were roughly 6,000 extrajudicial killings, again targeting poorer communities and young people. There have also been claims that paid mercenaries are working alongside police forces, and get more money depending on how many people they kill, starting at roughly $161 USD per head. When compared to the little to none received on arresting, this creates more incentive to kill despite there being no threat. This Amnesty International report goes into greater detail about the atrocities of police brutality that is above the law in the Philippines, however, the crux of the issue is that police forces in the Philippines are actively encouraged by the incumbent political party to use excessive force and target people unnecessarily. This is directly infringing on the constitutionally guaranteed rule of law.

What does this indicate? Police brutality and the recent riots is not a problem that only needs to be solved in the US. Police and the power that they are given to exercise force has been exploited, often against minority and poor communities repeatedly at different levels of intensity. This shows that there is a serious need for change in policing systems everywhere to reduce the level of violence. However, there is also the broader idea of decriminalising various issues like drug addiction by viewing them as more of a human condition or human rights issue, working to solve the issue at its core.

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