"Citizens in uniform": The trajectory of the police away from law and accountability is getting greater every day

When police act outside the laws & principles they've agreed to uphold, there are grave consequences for democracy

Published May 13, 2015 11:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/David Goldman)
(AP/David Goldman)

When we talk about police brutality and the suppression of dissent, it is important to consider the fundamental suppositions, laws and human rights conventions regarding the role of police in our society.  Even though it is a stretch to remind ourselves -- and still believe -- that police are simply “citizens in uniform,” with their primary identity that of “citizen” and, as such, members of society with social and civil obligations, it is useful to see just how great the distance is between ideal and law, and reality — and it’s getting greater each day.  It is critical to chart the trajectory away from law, from accountability and from democracy.  And not just in the United States. This is a global phenomenon.

Let’s start with the “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials,” articulated a quarter of a century ago at the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders (1990). This document puts forward the fundamental beliefs and commitments the United Nations established for law enforcement.  Among its most important elements, the report affirms “the work of law enforcement officials is a social service of great importance and there is, therefore, a need to maintain and, whenever necessary, to improve the working conditions and status of these officials; a threat to the life and safety of law enforcement officials must be seen as a threat to the stability of society as a whole.”

At the same time the document shows the equal importance attached to a police officer’s exercise of his or her duties within the framework of the law:  “the use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials should be commensurate with due respect for human rights… . Law enforcement officials … shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.”  And, most important for any discussion of police action during times of unrest, “Exceptional circumstances such as internal political instability or any other public emergency may not be invoked to justify any departure from these basic principles.”

These principles have remained intact in the intervening years, appearing most recently nearly verbatim in Amnesty International’s 2014 report on Ferguson, “On the Streets of America”:

Amnesty International recognizes that law enforcement officers face dangerous situations on a daily basis, and that the use of force is sometimes unavoidable. International standards provide that law enforcement officers should only use force as a last resort and that the amount of force must be proportionate to the threat encountered and designed to minimize damage and injury. Officers may use firearms as a last resort – when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury.


The intentional lethal use of firearms is justified only when “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” Christof Heyns, the Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, has explained that:  “The ’protect life’ principle demands that lethal force may not be used intentionally merely to protect law and order or to serve other similar interests (for example, it may not be used only to disperse protests, to arrest a  suspected criminal, or to safeguard other interests such as property).

What we see so bluntly as we read such aspirational statements is the egregious violations of such principles in case after case of police officers using lethal force in situation after situation where the “perceived threat” is entirely vague, or indeed illusory.  And it is an index to our social malaise that juries and other bodies give weight to these flimsy excuses for the use of deadly force.

As I mentioned, such cases of police acting far outside the laws and principles they are supposed to uphold have grave consequences for democracy, and this is evident worldwide. A single protest can incur repression, which in turn leads to greater and broader protests, which then spark more massive police and state reaction. Consider this report from Brazil regarding the social protests that erupted leading up to, and during, the 2014 World Cup:

Nearly 700 protests took place in Brazil in 2013. A new generation of protesters was coming of age and taking its politics to the street. What began as a demonstration against São Paulo’s bus fare increase rapidly evolved into an expression of grievances against social inequity, poor public services, political corruption, and excessive spending on construction for the World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

Officials pointed to the protests as proof of a healthy Brazilian democracy where the freedoms of expression and assembly — which the military dictatorship that ruled between 1964 and 1985 had denied citizens — were thriving. But if protests in 2013 highlighted democratic spirit and the demands of an emergent middle class, they also exposed a brutal police apparatus that had failed to evolve at pace.

We should note the narrative arc here — a groundswell of protests around a single, perhaps minor issue, evolved into a series of mass demonstrations around basic social services and corrupt practices. In other words, protests over the dysfunctional state of participatory democracy led to an all-out critique of the national government and power structures in general, and this is met with what amounts to military force.

The case of Brazil is but one in which we find reflected Ferguson, Missouri; Baltimore; and before them dozens of major episodes of civil unrest in the United States, from at least the turn of the 20th century onward.  And we find them as well in other countries today, as graphically shown in the American Civil Liberties Union’s report, "'Take Back the Streets': Repression and Criminalization of Protest Around the World," October 2013.  It’s crucial here to note that the command to “take back the streets” comes not from an ordinary citizen, but from a police chief, who is telling his officers to reclaim public space.  The ACLU report notes that:

In June 2010, hundreds of thousands of Canadians took to the streets of Toronto to peacefully protest the G20 Summit, which was taking place behind a fortified fence that walled off much of the city’s downtown core. On the Saturday evening during the Summit weekend, a senior Toronto Police Commander sent out an order – “take back the streets.” Within a span of 36 hours, over 1000 people – peaceful protesters, journalists, human rights monitors and downtown residents – were arrested and placed in detention. The title of this publication is taken from that initial police order. It is emblematic of a very concerning pattern of government conduct: the tendency to transform individuals exercising a fundamental democratic right – the right to protest – into a perceived threat that requires a forceful government response.

The cases, originating from Argentina, Canada, Egypt, Israel and the Occupied Territories, Kenya, Hungary, South Africa, the United Kingdom and the United States, each present a unique state reaction in a unique domestic context. They relate instances of excessive use of force resulting in injury and death, discriminatory treatment, criminalization of social leaders, and suppression of democratic rights through law, regulation and bureaucratic processes. And despite the fact that all the cases come from different countries, with different substantive debates and different social contexts, a number of common threads are identifiable.

One common thread found in the report is the increased militarization of police, and this is the second link in the overall argument I am making here—as we move far from the initial guiding documents for police behavior, we see a transformation in the nature of the police in general—into an anti-democratic army.

In its report on Ferguson, Amnesty directly addresses the militarization of police: “The use of heavy-duty riot gear and military-grade weapons and equipment to police largely peaceful demonstrations intimidates protesters who are practicing their right to peaceful assembly and can actually lead to an escalation in violence. Equipping officers in a manner more appropriate for a battlefield may put them in the mindset that confrontation and conflict is inevitable rather than possible, escalating tensions between protesters and police.”  And here we got closer to the greater dangers to democracy and rule of law we see growing every day. Here is the final step: privatization.

In an excellent article in Truthout, Candice Bernd sets forth the history behind the privatization of police in the U.S., and takes us into today’s world.  If the militarization of the police increases the likelihood of greater suppression of democratic actions, more violence and less accountability, privatization goes one step further in that direction.  We are on the verge of losing control altogether.  Bernd writes:

The armed security industry is increasingly supplementing public police forces in many poor urban areas, in places such as OaklandNew OrleansBaltimore and Atlanta. Some small towns like Foley, Minnesota, are going beyond simply supplementing their police departments, opting instead to replace them with private security entirely… [P]rivate entities such as Detroit 300 Conservancy and Guardsmark are working in concert with Gilbert's Rock Ventures subsidiaries and the DPD to create a mostly privatized, "quasi-surveillance state" in downtown Detroit - setting up a "frightening" situation for dissenters in the area.

… Detroit's desperate, increased reliance on private security and a private-public surveillance partnership in monitoring dissenters provides a model backdrop to the kind of crisis capitalism at work not just in Detroit, but across the United States, as the ranks of privatized police forces continue to surge since the September 11, 2001, attacks, now dwarfing the public sector as budgets for police departments experience cuts throughout the nation.

What we thus witness is a growing distance and alienation from the originary laws and principles governing police behavior, meant to secure and protect human rights and democratic rule. In fact, it would not be entirely wrong to say that we are now in a situation directly opposed to those ideals, principles and suppositions.  The response to this is not going to be simple or easy — to effectively fight against this perversion of the law, we will need to work on each of the fronts described in this article — on use of force, on oversight, on accountability, on militarization, and on privatization.  Two other things—we have to train ourselves not to accept at face value the rationalizations the use of force has hidden behind, especially as they have been embedded in racist discourse and rhetoric.  We must debate, not accept offhand, the reasons why force is used.  And we need to connect up with and learn together with those in other countries that are doing the same.

By David Palumbo-Liu

David Palumbo-Liu is the Louise Hewlett Nixon Professor at Stanford University. Follow him on Twitter at @palumboliu.

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Aclu Amnesty International Baltimore Ferguson Police Police Brutality