‘I can’t breathe’: Curbing police brutality
The brutal killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, where a policeman placed a knee on his neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, has been viewed globally in horror as his life flowed out in pain and agony. George called for his mother and implored, "I can't breathe," but there was no let-up. Shameful? The word does not carry the weight for what was on public display that day. But what word would? Cruelty, ruthlessness, inhumanity, malice, mercilessness, heartlessness?
Bystanders watched, some fervently appealed to the policeman to let go, and luckily, someone videotaped the episode (otherwise the world would not know, and George's departure from a violent and hateful world would go unnoticed as in many previous cases).
Since the episode, a revolt was born out of revulsion. A global resolve is now taking shape to bring a stop to this kind of atrocity. Millions (especially in the developed world)—black, white, brown, and all shades—marched in unison as their numbers swelled. It must have crossed a zillion minds that unless police brutality is rooted out, it could come back to haunt them personally.
To be sure, the violence committed was not an isolated act. Just Google "police brutality" or search YouTube across the world—South East Asia, Middle East, Africa, South America, Europe—and you'll see for yourself. Examples are not necessary: there are far too many to select from. North America's guilt is also in plain view; one is reminded of their oppression since the days of slavery when public lynching was attended in droves. In South Asia, terms like "crossfire" have emerged to evade accountability.
What gives policemen this sense of entitlement to harm a human being with such savagery and inhumanity? Something is wrong with the incentive structure. Networked with prosecutors, judges, reporters, coroners, medical personnel, and relevant others, they must feel protected for their wrongdoings and emboldened that they can do no wrong. How else can they display such impunity to "publicly" execute someone? The audacity of power, protected by a network of shameless collaborators, makes such heinous acts possible.
However, painting all policemen as wicked would be inconsiderate and utterly out of place. If that were the case, we would be living in a reign of terror of unfathomable magnitude. Respect must be given where it is due for those who take their job seriously and protect society from its other deep and diverse evils.
So, where do we go from here? Two things are imperative: We must use (new) laws and we must change the incentive structures. The task ahead is indeed a daunting one but it needs to begin.
Several laws must be considered with utmost seriousness, for all nations of the world to adopt:
These should: 1) Protect the sanctity of life (no violent action without exhausting all other means) and limit the use of weapons or force that can be physically damaging, unless used in self-defence; 2) Stop all humiliating practices that can be emotionally damaging (chokeholds, grabbing by the hair or neck, making one kneel, placing foot/knee on the neck, etc.). Instead, effort must be devoted to de-escalation tactics; 3) If both hands are raised, all subduing instruments must be lowered; 4) Evidence-gathering instruments must be used during a police engagement. Body cameras or similar (locally engineered) devices are recommended, otherwise there is only one version of the truth; 5) Duty to intervene (on-duty policemen must be able to stop others in the team from using excessive force); 6) Require comprehensive reporting within a few hours of the incident when force is used against someone. This is to diminish and eradicate report doctoring/tampering; and 7) Require proper selection, training, motivating, and evaluation of the police force entrusted with the mission to protect the public.
The incentive structures must also be changed and consider: 1) Placing names of errant policemen in a national (computerised) registry to restrict their access to jobs and other facilities if removed from the force for egregious behaviour; 2) Penalising an entire unit (to be defined) of which the offending policeman is a part. This should encourage the group to restrict/moderate the behaviour of an individual from committing excesses; 3) Punishing not just the policeman and the unit, but the wider network of prosecutors, public defenders, judges, providers of evidence, medical personnel, reporters, etc. involved with an egregious offense, resulting in undue harm. A random set of such cases may be selected for review every year by an independent (and upright) authority; and 4) For perpetrators, abettors, and those involved but disengaged, levels of consequences must be determined including suspension, stopping pay raises, stopping promotions for extended periods, removal from the force, incarceration, etc.
The above set of recommendations represent a tall order. I suggest it as a basis for future steps towards an ideal world. Different countries may already have some combination of the above provisions on their books. Whether they are being implemented is for the public to follow up on and affirm. Where gaps exist, they must be addressed.
A review of bad decisions "of the past" that exonerated the crimes of wayward policemen will be needed periodically to rectify their wrongdoings. It will also help bring closure to many families suffering incomprehensible loss and injustice in silence.
The pressure to change brutal police tactics must be sustained across the capitals of the world. Those who are entrusted with protecting life, liberty, property, speech, and human values, and paid from the coffers of the taxpayer, must understand the consequences of their action. Oppressive tactics and injustice should not be the way of the law enforcers. The public must feel safe in their presence and not run the other way instinctively. Trust in the policemen must be revived when they are seen as friend, not foe. Periodic surveys of public perceptions can be instrumental in this regard.
Change will come when everyone, across the world, joins a movement of this magnitude to demand change. A big part of the desired change must also come from within the police force and the nexus that allows police brutality to run unchecked. Will the present upheaval bring fresh change to police tactics globally? The world is watching. The world is waiting.
Syed Saad Andaleeb is Distinguished Professor Emeritus, Pennsylvania State University; former Vice Chancellor, BRAC University; and Distinguished Visiting Professor, IBA, University of Dhaka.