WORLD: Global protests demanding police reforms

After the murder of George Floyd, the world has seen some of the most powerful protests demanding police reforms. The government of the United States has made some minor reforms, but also responded with force. The larger issue of police reform is now one of the most visible demands, and it calls for much more serious and far reaching reforms.

In earlier periods, there have been moments when – in some countries, like the UK – there were such movements and the development of the idea of the metropolitan police, which is civilian policing, arose from that. That had an impact on some of the other countries.

However, throughout the larger part of the world, including the United States, the idea of civilian policing did not take root. A kind of semi-militaristic policing continued to be the main organisational form.

The essence of civilian policing is the nature of the relationship between the people of a particular nation and the policing institution. The core idea behind that relationship is minimizing the use of force in dealing with people, including those who engage in acts that the state wishes to suppress, such as crimes.

Behind that idea of minimizing force is the role of police being subordinated to the greater ideal of ensuring fair trial. The role of deciding on punishment is a matter than is entirely left to the judiciary. It is not possible to speak of police reforms without linking the whole issue to the protection of people’s right to fair trial.

If the police act in contravention to the basic norms of minimal force, it poses a threat to the whole structure of a system of justice that is founded on the basis of ensuring fair trial. Torturing persons is a grave crime, not only because it is an affront to the basic human dignity of all, but also because by using it the police usurp the power of the courts as the sole arbiters on deciding on punishments. It is in that spirit that the police are regarded as peace officers. Dealing with any individual or groups of persons can never be separated from the ultimate value attached to keeping peace within a community. Torture and ill treatment, therefore, are not mere acts directed against particular individuals, but to the community as a whole.

A community can only remain viable and dynamic to the extent that there is public space that can be utilized by the community in order to come to the assistance of each other. By such community solidarity, problems that individuals may not be able to resolve are in fact resolved by the community acting in solidarity. Anything that disturbs the possibilities of creating an ethos of solidarity is harmful to the society.

Over a long period of time, there was a kind of passive acceptance of forms of brutal behaviour on the part of the law enforcement agencies, either due to racial or other considerations. However, the present upsurge of protests brings many problems of a philosophical and legal nature back onto the international agenda that the international community needs to address on an urgent basis. Recent times have seen global threats to peaceful societies by way of terrorism and many other forms of societal violence. These, of course, are difficult problems, and need to be addressed to ensure the survival of a civilised society. However, the retaliation to these threats should also be conducted within a framework of a law-based society that ensures the rights of people are protected. If the latter is sacrificed under the pretext of safeguarding the former, then it could have catastrophic consequences for the community as a whole.

On this International Day in Support of Victims of Torture, these very basic issues that have now gained the world’s attention should be kept as the basic focus. Such a focus should not be confined to a single day; the coming year should be one in which the issue of police reforms to ensure a better society should be a global priority.