Police killing sparks protests in Minneapolis

Street warfare: Critics claim that police have become too militarised in recent years. © Getty

Is policing broken? Yesterday saw a second wave of protests after yet another Black person was killed by a police officer in the USA. Now some people are asking if policing is beyond reform.

Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man from Minneapolis died Sunday, shot by a police officer who claims she accidentally fired her handgun instead of her taser.

Wright’s killing sparked a wave of protests in the city, where tensions were already high over the ongoing trial of Derek Chauvin, the police officer charged with murdering George Floyd last year.

Wright is at least the 262nd person shot and killed by police in the USA this year. And he joins a long list of Black people killed by police officers who have rarely faced repercussions for it.

Yet when people protested against Wright’s killing in recent nights, police used tear gas, rubber bullets and flash bangs on them. The chief of police in the district where Wright was killed defended their response, claiming that protesters had hurled chunks of concrete at police. He stated: “Once we got pelted, we responded in kind.”

But for many, this is exactly the problem: police are much more powerful than civilians, and tend to respond to protests with overwhelming force.

Similar scenes have played out all over the world. Last month, police in London were criticised for breaking up a vigil on Clapham Common for Sarah Everard, the young woman who was abducted and murdered by an off-duty police officer. Two years ago in France, during the gilets jaunes protests, two people died, five lost hands, 24 lost eyes and 315 sustained head injuries thanks to rough policing.

For many, these examples are proof that our whole model of policing is wrong. They suggest we experiment with other ways of keeping order.

Although the police seem like an integral part of our society, they are in fact a relatively recent invention. Before the 1800s, most people lived in small, tight-knit communities where everyone knew everyone else. These communities would organise their own law enforcement: everyone would help catch a criminal and bring them to justice.

But as more and more people moved into big cities, they found that they no longer had the ties of mutual trust that had made community policing work. As such, governments began to create professional police forces made up of paid officers who were not local.

For some, this is the root of all policing problems. Since they do not belong to their communities, they are not accountable to them. Instead, critics claim, police officers start to act like a clique, protecting their own when they harm civilians.

But others think police killings are not proof that policing is a broken model. Instead, they argue, our focus should be on reducing the burden on police forces. If we invested more in mental health services and community activities, crime would fall and police would be used as a last resort, instead of the first response to all social problems.

Is policing broken?

Copping mechanism

Yes, say some. A series of killings by police, and their heavy-handed response to protests in a variety of countries, prove that they simply do not serve their communities. Instead of having a police force imposed on them, communities should be able to run their own law enforcement, which would be unpaid and directly accountable to them.

Not at all, say others. Compared with dictatorships, Western police forces are relatively restrained. All policing involves the use of force, and there is no reason to believe that a community police force would be more accountable than an institutional one that has to answer to the government.

You Decide

  1. Are the police able to police themselves?
  2. Think of some ways in which police forces could be made more accountable to local communities.

Activities

  1. Write a short story about the protests in Minneapolis from the perspective of either a protester or a police officer.
  2. Imagine that you have been tasked with putting together a community force to police your street. Make a plan to hand out roles and duties to your neighbours.

Some People Say...

“But what we need is different policing. Policing not steeped from root to flower in the need to control people of color.”

Ijeoma Oluo (1980 – ), Nigerian-American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
Most people agree that one problem with policing in the USA is that it has become far too easy for police forces to access military equipment. In 1997, the US government introduced a programme allowing excess military hardware to be passed on to police forces at a fraction of their original cost. The result has been increased use of military weapons like tear gas, night-vision goggles and even armoured vehicles on civilians. One study found this has led to a sharp increase in civilian deaths.
What do we not know?
There is some debate over what the police are for. The founder of the police force in Britain, Robert Peel, advocated policing by consent: he thought that the police must win over the trust of the communities they govern. Sociologist Max Weber argued that the police are central to the formation of the modern state, which claims a monopoly on “the legitimate use of force”. Karl Marx, however, claimed that the police exist only to uphold the interests of the ruling class.

Word Watch

Minneapolis
The largest city in the northern US state of Minnesota.
Taser
A weapon that incapacitates its victim by administering a powerful electric shock to them. Although sometimes referred to as a “non-lethal” weapon, it is really a “less-lethal” one, since it is still capable of causing serious injury or death.
George Floyd
A 46-year-old Black man who was killed when police officer Derek Chauvin knelt on his neck and back for almost 9 minutes. His death sparked a wave of protests against racism and police violence across the world.
Rubber bullets
Non-lethal bullets that are often used against protesters. Although they are unlikely to kill, they are extremely painful and can cause irreparable damage to the eyes and other soft body parts.
Flash bangs
Also known as a stun grenade, these weapons cause a flash that can blind a person for up to five seconds, and a loud bang that temporarily deafens them. It also leads to loss of balance and is intended to disorientate.
Gilets jaunes
A movement in France that arose in opposition to the government of Emmanuel Macron. It was initially formed over a plan to increase taxes on fuel. Gilets jaunes frequently clashed with police.

Subjects

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