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Police brutality and the lessons not learnt


The last few days are obviously not the best globally for the police especially in America where public opprobrium of police personnel’s conduct came to the front burner. The Police Department in America had never been so humbled and brought to public scrutiny as it did in the last few days in its close to three-hundred years of its establishment. This does not only call for a review and rethinking of police management, it also calls for another check on police agency architecture, its operations and psychology; and as well as on police conduct and style. While the ongoing public opprobrium against the Police Department in America is fueled by the heinous murder of a black American, George Floyd ostensibly labeled as racially induced, it is on record that before then, police conduct in terms of violence is rampart in America and Europe; and by extension in Africa and Asia.

Available statistics globally indicate that police brutality has assumed a proportional epidemic. In the United States of America alone and between 2013 and 2019, 7,666 deaths were accrued to police brutality. The spike of killings is not only limited to American police, there are reported cases in the United Kingdom, South Africa, India and Nigeria. While the spate of police violence against the public, has not gone unreported and discussed, that of singular extrajudicial killing of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 was one killing too many by the police in America. In effect, the continued and sustained protests are as a result of long held deep reticence against the police in America.


On this, African countries including Nigeria is also, not spared. Police agencies are primarily supposed to be civil and in charge of internal security. This primary objective of police agencies is rooted in the nine principles that informed the establishment of modern concept of police in 1829 popularised by Robert Peel, the founder of modern policing. While all the principles are against police brutality, principles numbers two and six clearly state as follows: To recognize always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behavior, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect. To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public cooperation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving police objective. These two principles do not only frown against police brutality, they clearly and unambiguously show that in all ramifications, police should not only be civil, they also,
derive their legitimacy from the approval of the public. Thus, violence cannot be unleashed on the same public whose taxes are used to maintain police personnel.

Police brutality or police violence therefore, occurs when the personnel of police agencies go out of line of duty to mete out brutal force that is not judicially sanctioned on the public. Introspecting from the sad incident of George Floyd’s ‘I Can’t Breathe’ agony, it was obvious that the police officer, Derek Chauvin had some deep-seated personality excesses given the reported 17 complaints against his person in
the course of his policing duties. On this, it was also reported he got reprimanded only twice by the Minnesota Police Management.

The profile of complaints against the person of Derek Chauvin ought to have put him under watch by the Minnesota State Police Department. In that light, the officer ought to have been excused from duty and quarantined psychologically until he is satisfied to be mentally and emotionally fit to provide policing functions. This brings to the fore, the importance of psychological checks and emotional intelligence on police personnel. Managing police organisations and personnel therefore, requires constant capacity building training and exposures. This should even start from the recruitment/enlistment stage. Police personnel in the course of duties, face a range of potentially stressful situations and events like any other person. These, could predispose them to stress, fatigue and misconduct. Often, they could also, develop a number of traits like cynicism, aloofness, suspiciousness, neuroticism; and addictive behaviours. More often, these are not profiled by police management before police personnel especially the rank and file are sent to their beats.


There has always been the debate on police personality acquisition (whether innate or acquired on the job). Like every other person, police personnel irrespective of status or gender are first and foremost members of the public. What makes the difference is the uniform and baton which signifies authority. While police personnel’s personality could be a strong nexus to misconducts, more often, some of the observed personality traits like neuroticism and cynicism are learnt or acquired while on the job. Here, the theory of Bad Apple by Adam Smith indicates that many police personnel arrive clean into police agencies and get rotten by negative and dysfunctional group members in the course of duties over the years. These, often elicit some negative traits including brutality and corruption especially among the rank and file.

Therefore, a combination of predisposing traits and police agency’s culture could determine police behaviour, which often, is negative. Scientific theories and evidence on police behaviour abound and point to the undisputable fact that police personnel are prone to violence. In this sense, and not only in respect of George Floyd’s orchestrated public outcry against police department in America, there are cases of police brutality in the land which we often refer to extrajudicial killings. It is a question of being hypocritical by refusing to remove the beam in our eyes before wanting to help the police personnel in America to do so. Unfortunately, lessons are not learnt. The Nigerian government has for long not carried out well-informed reforms on the Nigeria Police, which still carry the bastion of colonial syndromes and vestiges.

The Police Reform Bill of 2019 by the defunct Eight Senate leaves more to be desired. In the first place, that reform came 76 years after the Police Act of 1943. Some of the 131 clauses in the reform shown that some lessons are not learnt, given the currency of police brutality and the global protests that greeted it. Our police are still militarised, one of the colonial vestiges which promotes police violence even in Europe and America. This is currently being condemned globally arising from the fallout of Black Lives Matter protests. We stand to learn from this by demilitarising the police when relating with the public. What the world including Nigeria needs, is value-added policing. And that is a police culture in which sanctity of human life is protected. This is referred to as mission-based policing.


We have also not learnt the lesson of reviewing the criminal justice system in this regard. A jail term of two years or a fine of one million naira as contained in the referred Police Reform Bill for a police officer found guilty of killing a citizen cannot sufficiently deter a reoccurrence of such a brutality. The stronger a penalty, the less a reoccurrence of a behavior being punished. The Black Lives Matter protests also bring out the question of police culture and its training architecture as being queried by stakeholders and human rights activists. In this wise, there is a need to revisit police operational tactics with the public. Other than the knee-to-neck tactic in Europe and America, there are other tactics that are inhuman which the police should jettison if truly the agency wants to be public friendly as championed by Robert Peel. On this, we are also yet to draw lessons given inhuman treatments by the police even on our highways in Nigeria.

The public protests are a wakeup call for police effectiveness, especially in respect of civil policing. Police effectiveness is a function of three factors, otherwise refer to as 3ps – the polity (that is, the government), the police agency and the public. The drive here, is that the government should provide the wherewithal needed for the police to be effective and proactive. That would require more funding of the organisation. As presently stands, the Nigeria Police is underfunded. The Nigeria Police should also reciprocate same by providing mission-based policing in which the public would be seamlessly willing to cooperate with the agency. And lastly, the public needs to provide the support to the police mainly because the police department draws its legitimacy from the public. If these 3ps are so put in place, it would become much more seamless to have people’s police as against violent police. Unfortunately, we have not learnt the lessons that this can bring about. From America to Europe, Europe to Africa, Africa to Asia, Asia to Oceania, all human lives matter and should be so treated as sacred by the police.
Prof. Aremu is a police scholar from the University of Ibadan.


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