Guilty Verdicts do not Transform Oppressive Policing Structures
By Tessa Diphoorn, Brianne McGonigle Leyh, and Luuk Slooter
Photographers: Chris Henry, Olayinka Babalola, Gayatri Malhotra, Liliane Lathan & Norbu Gyachung
Overwhelming relief, optimism, and justice prevailed in Minneapolis, USA on 20 April 2021 when Derek Chauvin was found guilty for the murder of George Floyd. Two months later, on 25 June, he was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison for his crimes, 7 ½ years less than asked for by the prosecution. The footage of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police and his tragic last words “I can’t breathe” went viral across the globe. It triggered (non)violent protests across the United States and spread to cities around the world. The guilty verdict of Chauvin, which was publicly praised by President Biden, has demonstrated that under exceptional circumstances, and when caught on camera, police officers can be held accountable for their actions. It is a remarkable, though minor, victory for the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and all those fighting against systematic oppression on the hands of police officers. Yet amidst the joy and relief also lies scepticism and uncertainty, especially since a police shooting in Columbus, Ohio USA, resulted in the death of another victim, Ma’Khia Bryant, just moments before the verdict was read. For many it is clear that although such verdicts are pivotal in sending out a message that police abuse will not be condoned in the USA, they do not address the root causes and structures that enable the deaths of people such as George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Ma’Khia Bryant, and too many others.
Other high-profile cases of police officers being found guilty of murder in other parts of the world attest to this. In Kenya, the guilty verdict of police officer Titus Musila (also known as Katitu) was hailed as a victory, especially on behalf of both human rights organizations and oversight institutions Yet extrajudicial killings and police abuse continue to define the everyday realities of many Kenyan citizens. In France, confrontations between (riot) police and yellow vest protesters in 2018-2019 resulted in 2 deaths and 2500 injured protesters; only a few police officers were convicted for disproportionate and illegitimate use of violence. The recent documentary ‘Un pays qui se tient sage’ (David Dufresne, 2020) gives a shocking insight into the disturbing relationship between citizens and police in the country. While police brutality in France is a long lasting problem, especially in the marginalized outskirts of the city, it became more visible during the yellow vests protest in the heart of Paris. After another recent police beating of a Black man in November 2020, President Macron stated that police reforms are urgently needed: “Those whose job it is to apply the law should respect the law”.
Under agreed norms of international law, police officers should only ever use lethal force as a last resort or, in other words, when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others from the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Yet, time and again, across continents, we witness violations of the right to life as well as acts of torture and ill-treatment. From unlawful killings to police brutality and discrimination, many individuals (often people of color) operate under a strong distrust if not fear of the police, knowing that few if any will be held accountability for their actions. As stated by analyst Charles Blow in the New York Times after the Chauvin verdict: “One battle is won, but we are still in the middle of the war for equality”. This war for equality entails democratic policing that respects the human rights of all individuals, and this can only exist or emerge through attempts at -- what we have labelled as -- transformative policing reform efforts.
Three fundamental shifts
In a special issue in the interdisciplinary Oxford Journal of Policing: A Journal of Policy and Practice, we critique various contemporary reform trajectories that largely center around institutional reforms, such as the restructuring of police units, and short-term solutions, such as sensitization and human rights trainings for police officers. As an alternative, we call for transformative policing efforts and this centres around three fundamental shifts.
The first is a recognition that we should focus on policing, rather than the police. Although officers such as Chauvin, Musila, and the French riot police act as representatives of the state’s law enforcement system, the safeguarding of our communities is not solely the responsibility of the state police. Instead, across the globe, we can see a range of actors involved in policing, such as private security companies, local vigilantes, and community policing entities. These policing bodies have divergent relationships with state authorities, ranging from outright competition to fruitful collaboration. We therefore need to incorporate these actors in discussions around policing in order to acquire a profound picture of the larger structures that need to be tackled. This is especially true since these actors are also responsible for any abuse of power, as was exemplified by the death of Joao Albertos Silveira Freitas at the hands of two security guards in Brazil. As argued by Alex Vitale (2017) in his provocative book The End of Policing, “the problem is policing itself”, and this does not solely include the state police.
The second shift centres around the importance of employing a holistic approach that addresses the interplay between structural forms of violence, police violence, and (violent) contestation by individuals. It is important to critically study how policing is ingrained in larger undemocratic, unequal, or violent structures in society. It means taking account of the historical context in which policing unfolds, and to analyse how these contexts contribute to the (re)production of certain forms of policing and enable certain roles for both police officers and victims of police brutality. It would be too simplistic to ‘just’ blame individual police officers or the police in general for what happened to George Floyd and many others in the USA and elsewhere. The foundations of the problematic, hostile, and sometimes violent relationship between citizens and police across the globe are multi-layered and are deeply rooted within societies. They go beyond a single ‘sadist’ police officer and idea of the ‘rotten apple’ and the structures of a malfunctioning police organisation or security sector alone.
The third shift is more normative in nature and involves moving towards longer-term transformative policing goals that are more inclusive and community oriented, and that contribute to effective, accountable and context-sensitive models of policing. Reform policies are not static but are constantly in flux and need to consistently be revisited. However, immediate and short-term prevention strategies and reforms are often demanded by local communities and they are regularly the only types of actions that get political support. This is because -- politically -- longer-term planning remains problematic for a variety of reasons, such as financial constraints and shifting political demands and agendas. This is clearly evident with the existing discussions about new police reform bills to be passed in the United States after Chauvin’s conviction. The challenge now lies with finding a balance between the implementation of immediate strategies to enhance (perceptions of) safety for individuals and address injustices, and to simultaneously tackle societal, political, and economic structures that set the foundation for contestation between policing actors and individuals.
In finding this balance, we also need to recognize that policing in one society may be very different from policing in another society. Transformative policing reform in the USA, Kenya and France may require radically different approaches. There is no global model or a universal blueprint. For example, community policing strategies are often heralded as vehicles of change in improving relationships between the community and the police and giving ownership to communities in certain parts of the world, they can also reinforce existing inequalities and act as oppressive structures elsewhere.
Yet despite these local specificities, it is clear that we are dealing with a global problem. There are Derek Chauvins and George Floyds to be found everywhere. Police abuse demands further empirical attention that allows us to simultaneously comprehend the diversity of local contexts and identify the similarities across localities. With this approach, we can move towards a reality wherein the structural problem of policing is disaggregated and dealt with, and wherein accountability is the norm, rather than the exception.
Tessa Diphoorn is assistant professor at the Department of Cultural Anthropology at Utrecht University. Her research and teaching focuses on security, violence, and policing in Kenya and South Africa. She is the author of Twilight Policing: Private Security and Violence in Urban South Africa (2016), co-editor of Security Blurs: The Politics of Plural Security Provision (2019), and the co-founder and host of the podcast series Travelling Concepts on Air together with Brianne McGonigle Leyh.
Brianne McGonigle Leyh is an associate professor at the International and European Law Department at Utrecht University’s School of Law. She specializes in human rights law and global justice, with a focus on victims’ rights, transitional justice, social justice, and the documentation of serious crimes. She is a member of the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights (SIM), the Montaigne Centre for Rule of Law and Administration of Justice, and the research platform Contesting Governance. Together with Tessa Diphoorn, she hosts the podcast series Travelling Concepts on Air.
Luuk Slooter is assistant professor Conflict Studies at the History Department at Utrecht University. His research focuses on urban uprisings, violence and policing in marginalized neighbourhoods in France and the Netherlands. He is the author of The Making of the Banlieue: An Ethnography of Space, Identity and Violence (2019) and Geweld (2021, together with Jolle Demmers).