In April, in North Charleston, South Carolina, Officer Michael Slager was recorded coolly unloading eight bullets into the back of Walter Scott. Soon after, Baltimore erupted in protest over the death of Freddie Gray. And last month, the news came that the Madison, WI officer who killed Tony Robinson Jr would not face any charges.
These are just the latest in a spate of high-profile police killings over the last year in the United States, only a few prominent instances of the on average 928 people killed annually by US police, over the last eight years.
There is a certain tendency to see such deaths as further confirmation of a violent America, in contrast to a peaceful Europe. Holders of this view heaped praise on the Swedish cops who broke up a fight between two men on the New York City subway in April, and circulated the claim that the US’s 111 police killings in March more than doubled the figure in Britain since 1900. What force is exerted by police in the Old World is perceived to be minimal and all the more effective for it.
Certainly it is true that American police use lethal force more frequently than their European counterparts. But this view also evinces a distinct complacency about police violence, lethal or otherwise, on the eastern side of the Atlantic.
This is not for lack of documentation. To take just a small sample: the Spanish Coordinator for the Prevention of Torture tallies 156 deaths at the hands of the country’s police forces from 2005 to the end of 2013, and 5,784 people who have complained of police maltreatment or torture from 2004 to 2013. Moreover, given widespread reluctance to pursue complaints due to distrust of the justice system or fear of police retribution, this is cited as a conservative figure.
In its overview of policing in Germany, Amnesty International lists 2,955 complaints against officers for 2009, ranging from abuse and coercion to homicide, of which there were twenty-five cases. Sociologist and historian Mathieu Rigouste calculates that French police kill on average ten to fifteen people annually, overwhelmingly in areas in which those who benefit least from neoliberal capitalism are concentrated.
In the Irish Republic, a country of four and a half million people, there were at least thirty-six deaths in police custody between 1997 and 2010. By far the most lethal place to be detained by police in Western Europe, however, is the UK, where the NGO Inquest documents 1,511 deaths in police custody or following police contact since 1990.
For its part, Amnesty has repeatedly laid out the extent of police violence in Western Europe, as well as the institutional culture of impunity and complicity, and wider societal institutions that facilitate this abuse. Drawing on Amnesty’s reports and those of other human rights advocacy groups allows us to chronicle specific, representative cases of police brutality, as well as trace its rationale and its supports. While documenting continent-wide trends can risk reductiveness, there are certain transnational regularities and generalizations we can make about Western European policing, and indeed police violence.
In thinking about ideological and institutional supports for police violence in particular, three are especially salient: prestige, order, and discretion.
The prestige policing is accorded typically induces a reflexive dismissal of police violence as nonexistent or, at most, exceptional. This bad-apple defense amounts to the claim that however continuous are aggressions, injuries, and deaths at the hands of the police, they are merely an aggregate of unrepresentative anomalies. And because it is presumed that police perform a difficult and useful job, they are to be given leeway in their conduct.
While these kinds of apologias are unpersuasive, their mirror image is the simplistic view of the police as a collection of miscreants. But making sense of cops’ propensity to carry out violence, disproportionately against certain groups, requires reckoning with the institutional forms and social functions of the police.
Above all, as political theorist Mark Neocleous describes, the police are tasked with producing and maintaining order — not merely enforcing the law. Research into the records of orders from senior officers bear this out, showing “how everything in this world had an ordained place and could therefore be controlled, ordered, disciplined, checked, scrutinized.”
At its core, police must “detect and end disorder among citizen”; they “cannot cope with ambiguity in any way.” But crucially, order here is of a very particular kind: not the opposite of chaos but the making and upholding of social hierarchy, most notably of class and race.
The actual process of creating and upholding this kind of order depends heavily on police discretion — a relative autonomy to define and react to the situations in which they operate. In other words, law enables rather than restricts police power. It is a resource by which officers legitimate their conduct.
These discretionary powers are not accorded to the police as a concession. As Richard Seymour explains, the state “wants officers who are sufficiently empowered to act in ways they see fit in order to effectively reproduce the social order.” (Despite its implications for the liberal myth of a clear distinction between legality and illegality, Neocleous points out, discretion has been conventionally seen as crucial to the institution for going on two hundred years.)
What does this mean in practical terms? Amnesty has repeatedly expressed concern that even when complaints against the police in Europe are processed, they are not undertaken with sufficient rigor and are often closed prematurely.
In special reports on Denmark, Germany, and France, the organization found preferential judicial treatment of police officers to be deeply rooted in each. Also problematic were complicity and collusion within police services, facilitating abuses in the first place and obstructing their investigation thereafter. It also reported prosecutors’ disinclination to take complaints against officers sufficiently seriously, or to enforce disciplinary processes and measures with proper vigorousness.
Of course, discretionary powers are not unbounded, and police officers can be brought to book. Amnesty highlights, however, how statistically rare it is throughout the continent for complaints to be prosecuted, or for police officers to receive more than decidedly lenient disciplinary measures or sentences.
How, then, does the police’s affinity for order, augmented by discretionary power, manifest itself in Western Europe? There are a few groups in particular that human rights organizations identify again and again as targets of police violence, and thus form the core of this article: those experiencing mental health problems, ethnic minorities, and those participating in certain kinds of political activism.
Treated Like Criminals
In May 2013 the Independent Commission on Mental Health and Policing published a damning report, taking the UK police to task for, among other failings, physical brutality and prejudice towards those with mental health issues. Its findings came in the wake of forty-five suicides and five killings of mental health sufferers in London police custody or following police contact between 2007 and 2012. The report noted a common refrain from victims: they felt like officers were treating them like criminals.
A striking case in point is that of Sean Rigg, the black British musician. Rigg had no mental health issues until he was arrested in 1988 at age twenty, following a bad LSD trip. He was injected at a police station with what his sister, Marcia, says was probably an anti-psychotic drug. Held under the Mental Health Act, he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia.
Rigg struggled with his health while getting on with his life. In August 2008 he suffered a particularly acute deterioration in his mental state, and was arrested by London police. Pinned down on the floor and then kept handcuffed in a rear-stack position in a police van, Rigg had already lost full consciousness by the time he arrived at a South London police station.
As his condition continued to worsen, police officers accused him of “faking it” and “feigning unconsciousness.” Only after a doctor found that his heart had stopped and that he was no longer breathing was he taken to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Upon viewing Rigg’s body, his family were immediately struck by the visible wounds to his temple on one side. Their efforts to secure justice were rebuffed by the Independent Police Complaints Commission, which, as per usual, found no evidence of police neglect or wrongdoing.
Another representative case is that of twenty-six-year-old Jonathan Jacob, the CCTV footage of whose 2010 killing was broadcast on Belgian national TV three years later. Reports conflict as to the precise circumstances of his arrest, but they indicate that he was either suffering from a withdrawal from amphetamines or was undergoing a hallucinatory episode.
Jacob’s state grew increasingly agitated and, having been transferred from a psychiatric hospital whose doctors refused to accept him because they deemed him too aggressive, he was put in the holding cell of an Antwerp police station.
In order to inject Jacob with a tranquilizer — something the psychiatric hospital had ruled out, since it was dangerous to do so without knowing what Jacob had taken — a special intervention unit was called up to subdue him. A noise grenade was thrown into his cell before he was rushed, beaten, and crushed. He died from an internal hemorrhage brought on by the rupture of an abdominal vein and a laceration of his liver.
An additional instance of this sort occurred in November 2009, when Mohamed Boukrourou, a forty-one-year-old Moroccan man, went to his regular pharmacy in eastern France to complain about some medication he had picked up there a few days earlier. According to the pharmacist, Boukrourou was extremely agitated, and he called the police at Boukrourou’s request. Witnesses report that he sat down and waited calmly for the police.
When four police officers arrived they reportedly tried to handcuff him, but he refused to cooperate. The information received by Amnesty indicates that the four police officers restrained Boukrourou on the ground outside the pharmacy, before carrying him into a police van.
A witness said that the police were kicking, beating, and stamping on him inside the vehicle. Boukrourou was pronounced dead by early evening. His brother and sister said that when they were finally allowed to see his body two days later, one of his cheeks was lacerated, his brow was cut, his lip was split, and there were bruises on his face.
Amnesty International highlighted the case as illustrative of a pattern in France of impartial and protracted investigations of deaths in police custody. The experience of the initial violence is thus multiplied exponentially as families of victims see perpetrators protected by their colleagues and the wider judicial system.
Indeed, Boukrourou’s siblings said their brother had been following a mental illness treatment for ten years, and that his state was stable; yet throughout the proceedings, they say his condition was cited as the reason for his death. “It always comes down to, ‘he took medicine, he was ill, he had a disability pension.’”
In this, Boukrourou is again no anomaly. Amnesty reports that “this echoes statements by family members of other victims who told Amnesty International that they felt their relatives’ reputation had been called into question, being portrayed as someone ill, violent or who took drugs, which they have experienced as a way for the authorities to deflect responsibility.”
Enforcing the Social Hierarchy
In August 2011 Police Constable Alex MacFarlane told a young black Londoner that he had just strangled him “’cause you’re a cunt,” and that “the problem with you is you will always be a nigger.” MacFarlane’s violence functioned as a warning that those who looked like his victim dare not rise above their prescribed station in life. Such aggressive enforcement of social hierarchy, and contempt for those at the bottom of it, explains in large part the prevalence of police violence against ethnic minorities in Europe.
The same logic was surely at work when judges decided there was no case to be prosecuted against the police officers who left Christopher Alder, a former soldier of Nigerian descent, to die with his trousers and underwear pulled down around his knees, with officers making monkey noises over his lifeless body and colleagues looking on and laughing.
Of course, scandals like the Alder case are not the most common form of police abuse migrants and ethnic minorities endure. That would be the daily practice of being stopped, searched, and having their identity checked for being suspiciously foreign. This humiliating experience, as well as the feeling of being marked out because of one’s skin color, was cited by participants in the rebellion that rocked England in the aftermath of the August 2011 police killing of Mark Duggan.
Amnesty has expressed particular concern in Switzerland about widespread physical violence against suspects in the course of identity checks and the degrading manner in which they are treated, often being forced to strip or undergo searches naked in public view. The threat of physical aggression is such that Amnesty reports a generalized fear among the immigrant community.
The situation is similar in Germany. Here Amnesty lists specific instances where ethnic minorities or those believed to be foreign nationals have complained of being stopped and seriously assaulted by the police. One such case is that of a twenty-eight-year-old German woman of Turkish background (identified only as TC), who in February 2007 was taken to a federal police station for allegedly failing to show an ID card at Lübeck train station.
After objecting to being frisked at the police station by a male, and expressing her concern about the procedure in light of recent surgery on her arm, she reported that the police officer told her to “shut up,” before striking her breasts, pushing her towards the wall, grabbing her by the neck and shaking her so hard that her head hit the wall. She recounted that the same officer later punched her in the head and threw her belongings everywhere.
TC filed a criminal complaint the same day, to which the federal police responded by bringing its own, alleging coercion, resistance to law enforcement officers, bodily injury, false accusation, and insult. The charges were later dropped.
In this she was lucky — the continent-wide practice of filing retaliatory charges, or initiating them for insulting or impugning the honor of the police, is used to exonerate officers. In TC’s case the police officer suspected of the offense conducted parts of the investigation into the incident, and the probe into police conduct was ultimately dropped by the public prosecutor’s office.
Even amid deep austerity, resources are still found to harass and assail migrants, as well as Romani communities, in the European periphery. Amnesty notes that Spanish police continue to carry out identity checks based on racial profiling. And the Greek police have instilled a pervasive fear among migrants, not only though outright physical assault, but the wasted time and humiliation resulting from the prolific practice of stopping and transferring suspected illegal foreigners to police stations.
That police violence against migrants extends beyond identity stops should come as no surprise in light of the recording by a Greek investigative journal, who attributes these words to Nikolaos Papagioanopoulos, the head of Greek police: “We must make their life unbearable.” Papagionopoulos has reason to be satisfied, as Amnesty reports numerous allegations of ill-treatment against refugees and migrants, including instances of inhumane conditions of detention and torture.
Of all the Western European states whose policing systems Amnesty has reviewed, France comes in for the heaviest criticism for violence against migrants and others who don’t appear traditionally French. The organization goes so far as to say that “the overwhelming majority of cases brought to Amnesty International’s attention concern persons belonging to ethnic minorities.”
Further, it notes the persistence of complaints of excessive or inappropriate use of force, including that which results in permanent injury or death. Also common is the practice of charging victims, or even those objecting to their victimization, with “outrage” (insulting a law enforcement officer) and “rebellion” (violently resisting a law enforcement officer).
One person hit with these charges was Josiane Ngo, who was eight months pregnant in July 2007 when officers in Paris told her she was in violation of street vending regulations. She replied that she was simply making a delivery. The police officers asked for her identity papers but she responded that her partner had her residence permit with him.
It was at this point, Ngo recounted, that one of the officers took her by the arm and told her they were going to the police station. After asking the officer to let go of her and explain why she was being arrested, she says one of the police officers punched her in the nose and pushed her to the ground.
When her partner arrived — and as he attempted to show the officers Ngo’s residence permit — they fired tear gas at him and his three-year-old son. Ngo was also hit by the gas. Police officers dragged her by the hair into a police van and punched her, she stated, and then a cop sat on her back as she lay on the vehicle floor and struck her in the head.
When she arrived at the police station — where she said she was also kicked — Ngo was informed she would be charged with outrage. And while the charges were later dropped, a doctor instructed Ngo not to go to work for ten days because of her injuries.
European police violence against political demonstrators has a long history. In October 1961 Paris police massacred up to two hundred Algerian immigrants, many of whose bodies were thrown into the river Seine. With the thirty-year anniversary of the miners’ strikes last year, British viewers could view footage of the UK police battering workers. More recently, Italian police aggression resulted in scores of human rights abuses at the 2001 G8 summit in Genoa, including numerous cases of torture and the killing of one protester.
Another instructive example of the police’s service to the economic status quo was the repression of the Shell to Sea campaign in Rossport, Ireland. In the wake of plans by Shell to install a huge gas extraction facility, the campaign was formed by locals trying to protect their homes and livelihoods.
As retired teacher and founder member of the movement Maura Harrington describes it, the local police escalated their presence in the area and their violence around October 2006:
They used to get psyched up before they came down. It was like the Mississippi police in the civil rights era. They knew they would get away with whatever they wanted. You had 200 to 300 police with batons hitting people. It was deliberately designed to intimidate us and destroy our protest movement. It was vicious and intense — people being beaten down by their neighbors. We were getting support from the larger Shell to Sea movement but some locals got scared. They were worried the protesters might get killed so they called it off.
With the uptick in anti-austerity demonstrations in recent years, police violence against protesters Europe has also escalated. In Britain demonstrators have been increasingly subjected to kettling, or detaining protesters by forming police cordons.
This has supplemented rather than replaced the battering of select protesters, however. When thousands of students marched in London in December 2010 against the tripling of tuition fees and the broader attack on higher education, they were met with kettling, charging horses, and flailing batons — the impact of one left twenty-year-old student Alfie Meadows needing emergency brain surgery.
Following the standard pattern, after Meadows lodged a complaint he was charged with violent disorder. Along with fellow demonstrator and co-defendant Zak King, he was dragged through two and a half year of various trials with the prospect of five years imprisonment before they were finally exonerated.
Despite some egregious political sentencing — one student was sentenced to twelve months for waving a flimsy placard stick — many of the cases brought against protesting students fell apart when the police brutality they had experienced was exposed in court.
Police violence against Spanish protests has also come to the fore, often in the form of video footage of indiscriminate assaults during important mobilizations like that of the indignados in Barcelona in May 2011, or the Surround the Congress action in Madrid in September 2012.
According to the Coordinator for the Prevention of Torture, from 2004 to 2013, there were 2,737 cases recorded involving 6,621 complainants of police violence from social movements alone. (And as the CPDT noted, this number is likely a conservative figure, given the distrust of the judiciary and the fear of retributive police action.)
Georg Lukács argued that it is precisely in a time of crisis that capitalism becomes perceptible as a system in its totality. It is certainly true that at least for many Spaniards the police have shown themselves to fulfill a definite social role on behalf of capital. Above all, this is seen in the evictions that have swept through Spain.
A common refrain of police spokesmen is that the police are not responsible for government policy. But there is a clear contrast between the Spanish firemen and locksmiths who have refused to carry out the dictates of financial institutions, and the policemen carrying out evictions and assailing both residents and anti-eviction protesters with apparent gusto.
In Greece police violence against popular protest has also impacted a significantly wider section of the population than in northern Europe. Perhaps the most notorious case in recent times is the torture of antifascist protesters by the DELTA motorbike police force. Although state pathologists confirmed their injuries, the minister of public order and citizens’ protection questioned the allegations and also stated that the Greek authorities would sue the newspaper that exposed the allegations.
Demonstrations against Greek austerity have also been the object of police repression: on May 11, 2011, a riot policeman struck Yiannis Kafkas with a fire extinguisher. He had to have emergency surgery to save his life, and spent twenty days in hospital, ten of them in intensive care. Pictures from that day show that this use of fire extinguishers by police was not an isolated incident. More than a hundred peaceful protesters sought medical assistance for head and other injuries.
As Kafkas explained, “What happened to me is too dark and a heavy burden to carry . . . There is a particular officer who lifts a fire extinguisher and hits a human being that does not pose him a threat. Why this happened? . . . Because this man [this officer] knew from the beginning that nothing would happen to him . . . If this man finds himself before his responsibilities [is held accountable], he will think again . . .”
Beyond the Binary
Those who rightly abhor police violence in the US would do better than to hold up the European experience as a standard of aspiration. No doubt, it is less deadly. But even a cursory survey of the suffering inflicted by European police forces — primarily against people with mental problems, ethnic minorities, and political demonstrators — discredits any binary opposition between Old and New Worlds. Complacently holding up foils to American policing is no substitute for the work of understanding and undermining police violence, wherever it occurs; nor can it foreclose asking the more fundamental questions about the meaning of justice and security in societies premised on exploitation and exclusion, whatever their dissimilarities.
This in turn necessitates that the struggle against police violence — whether in the US, in Europe, or elsewhere — is undertaken with a sense of the systemic character of policing. Above all, this involves reckoning with how police violence connects to its core function: upholding the present economic, political, and social order. We need also to draw greater attention to how that task is facilitated by the prestige in which the profession is held, and the discretion with which it is endowed as an institution.
None of this is to encourage defeatism. If the fight to curtail police power is to be successful, the nature of the problem must be addressed without illusions — an imperative all the more urgent in a time of ubiquitous austerity, neoliberal retrenchment, and securitization.