U.S. riots and police brutality: responding to a homeland security threat – by Maria Chr. Alvanou

Throughout the U.S. there is turmoil due to the death of George Floyd, attributed to the murderous act of a police officer, already arrested and charged. Reactions have ranged from peaceful demonstrations to serious riots in several cities. Events like burning down police stations and vehicles, as well as vandalisms, looting, clashes with law enforcement, etc have created the background for violence connected with further loss of lives. The whole situation has become so serious that in some cases the National Guard has been activated, curfew has been imposed and even state of emergency has been declared. Images from the news and constant live updates[1] show an America bleeding, in quasi civil war conditions, where right and wrong have begun notions too blur to be distinguished. 

The state has to deal with the issue in two levels. The first level has to do with countering the present situation, trying to put out the fire without further damage. The operational ability to intervene without causing more conflict is the bet to be won here (undoubtedly with inherent difficulties). The second level regards the way police violence as a phenomenon must be deterred and needs careful, realistic planning, taking into account the multitude of reasons that encourage this type of power abuse. Both levels present challenges. Below are some first comments as the situation still develops in the US:

  1. The present effort of authorities is to counter the dynamic of the riots that seems to endanger the peace and lives of Americans. The country is facing a homeland security crisis, one that could be considered even more threatening than an Islamist terror attack (which has been considered since 9/11 the most considerable menace for the country’s security). The violence that has erupted apart from causing material damages, acts also in symbolic level: citizens are against the state, against the way its power is exercised through the police. Law enforcement agencies represent the state and when their function is carried out in ways outside the rule of law, it is the state’s image that is marred. Even the most sophisticated Islamist propaganda and calls to lone wolves have not succeeded into turning the U.S. in this chaos we see. The actions of a certain police officer proved to be far more dangerous for U.S. security. Most probably because it is not just the certain event and the certain police officer that is the problem here. There is need for sensitive handling that will not create even more fertile conditions for further conflict; especially since at this point wherever protests have become violent, it is quite difficult to really distinguish between two groups of people: those who feel anger and frustration due to years of discrimination, poverty and unfair treatment existing in the country, and those who find alibi and hide behind reactions against police brutality in order to act according to violent extremist and anti-authoritarian ideologies. For the first group of protesters, correct communication is imperative at this stage, so that they realize a just cause doesn’t justify all means. Violence answered with violence will bring- no surprise here!- more violence. But this means- apart from positive messages in communication- that policing during the protests should be carried out in ways that crowds are not provoked by police behavior resembling the very reason these protests are about. For example, the image of a police officer putting his knee on a protester, or pushing a woman kneeling with her hands up in the air[2] conveys the message: nothing has changed, nothing will change, the next dead George Floyd is just around the corner. Additionally, order can not be maintained when journalists are arrested, pepper-sprayed or hit with rubber bullets[3]. The message coming out is that freedom of the press, the power of the people to know, transparency and accountability are all under attack by the police. Order can also not be maintained when military vehicles appear on the streets and tear gas is used escalating protests that could have ended with less serious damages and unrest. On the other hand it is evident that the tragedy of George Floyd’s death has been also hijacked by extremists who have found reason and space to attack indiscriminately the police, destroy properties and express anti-authority sentiments, as well as even far rightists (experts have talked about the very possible involvement of ‘accelerationists’[4]). Along them- probably taking advantage of the mob situation- participate in the events also common criminals enjoying the joyride of violence, without any ideological and theoretical anti-authoritarian orientation. Dealing with this group of protesters is the hardest part for police intervention. Police have to address what is happening as a form of domestic violent extremism. After all operationally some of the violence is perpetrated in the same ways extremists have used for some time now (for example vehicle attacks)[5]. Policemen have to effectively protect their lives that are been clearly targeted and at the same time make sure properties are not destroyed and looted, plus all this without breaking the rules of engagement countering such situations. A careless action or an intended violation of human rights during the riots and arrest procedures  ill only breed more violence. ‘De-escalate’ should be the clear line of intent showed in the operational ways law enforcement intervenes, but also in the rhetoric of the government. There is no room for slips of the tongue, mistakes and misunderstandings that can add fuel to the fire. Very positive steps towards de-escalation have been the initiatives of police officers to participate in condemning police brutality. Images of policemen praying, kneeling and marching in solidarity with protesters offer a chance for trust to be built again between citizens and law enforcement[6], even though this trust won’t be gained easily and it will be fragile[7].
  2. The point is not just to end these riots, but to make sure there are no reasons for them to take place again in the future. The roots of police brutality in U.S. society are deep and George Floyd as a victim represents systemic injustice and racism. People, especially those who belong to certain racial, ethnic or cultural groups fear such a brutal event may take place any time again. They feel they could be the next victim. U.S. governments have failed to identify police violence (especially in the context of institutional racism) as a serious homeland security threat, although riots took place also in the past, once again connected with the problem of racism[8]. The phenomenon has to be adequately identified and evaluated as a homeland security threat due to its detrimental effects to the country. Those police officers who use unlawful, excessive and unnecessary violence resulting to injury or death are committing a crime. It is that simple and clear. Yet while generally all crime is a breach of security, this type of criminality stands for serious institutional and systemic deficits regarding democracy and the rule of law. The consequences of police brutality do not concern just the immediate victims who suffer physical harm, but also the rest of the society that suffers a collective type pf trauma. It is a blow against the rule of law and institutions. After all there is a clear distortion of the state’s use of power, when law enforcement is not enforcing the law, but it is breaking it.  This is why prosecution and judicial authorities need to step up into thorough and careful investigation of police brutality cases. Effective access to justice is imperative so that citizens feel confident their complaints against the police will be examined and culprits will be held accountable. Given the fact that usually those victimized belong to vulnerable segments of the society (rich, white collar criminals don’t seem to fall victims of brutality during their arrest), they are already in an underprivileged position when struggling to prove the guilt of policemen who are part of the whole criminal justice mechanism. The joint statement of U.S. prosecutors under the title ‘Joint statement from elected prosecutors on the murder of George Floyd and police violence- FAIR & JUST PROSECUTION’[9] is indicative of the changes needed, offering an insight to systemic changes proposals as well as focusing on accountability, comprehensive reform, the need for transparency, addressing racially disparate policing and protecting human life.

As with homeland security threats in general, the government of the U.S. has to evaluate the vulnerabilities of the criminal justice system and the function of police authorities. Racism must be detected and countered during the recruitment and everyday service of law enforcement officers. The exercise of power and violence (when needed) must effectively be controlled by the police itself, meaning that mechanisms ensuring integrity should be put in place. The first to know a certain police officer is using excessive violence, treats the arrested in bias due to skin color, gender, religion, etc are the other police officers. Colleagues should be encouraged to denounce a fellow police officer without feeling (or treated by their working environment) as if they betrayed loyalty rules. And the police force must not hesitate to remove from its ranks those who are not obeying the law and show problematic, discriminative behavior towards citizens. In most cases tragic events like the death of George Floyd could have been avoided, if the policeman had been removed from duty when  previous incidents of violence and bias had occurred and were denounced. 

The issue is not of course to condemn the police as a whole nor to undermine the authority and power it should have within a state. It is not utopic, but dystopic to have a state without police. However democracies call for a police that respects the rule of law it is supposed to enforce. Moreover other countries should avoid pointing the finger at the U.S. pretending this is an American phenomenon. Police violence and its dimension related to racism are not a U.S. problem, they are almost a universal one. Death caused because of police brutality is not unheard also in Europe[10]. Moreover cases of mistreatment, brutality, torture and abuse by law enforcement officers have made the news in European countries too, serious riots took place because of them[11] and often the justice system has failed to ensure proper investigation and accountability, resulting to violations of the European Convention of Human Rights[12]. Hence, the intervention of human rights organizations[13] in several cases highlighted the problem. Additionally, in European countries ‘black lives matter’ could easily be changed to ‘migrant lives matter’[14] or even ‘roma lives matter’[15]. Every society has simply its own ghosts to face regarding racism. What matters is for states (not just for the United States) to understand that the biggest threat to the security of their citizens and the cohesion of society may come not from ‘outside’ enemies, not from designated terrorists, but by their own authorities acting against the principles of democracy, equality and human rights. Police brutality must be handled for the serious threat it is.

[1] https://www.cbsnews.com/live-updates/george-floyd-death-protests-unrest-disorder-2020-06-02/.


[3] https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/05/31/journalists-blinded-injured-arrested-covering-george-floyd-protests/5299374002/https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/01/george-floyd-riots-violence-damage-property-police-brutality .

[4] For this issue read Mia Bloom’s comments http://www.homelandsecuritynewswire.com/dr20200601-farright-infiltrators-and-agitators-in-george-floyd-protests-indicators-of-white-supremacists,  as well as Daniel Byman’s article https://www.lawfareblog.com/riots-white-supremacy-and-accelerationism.

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VhoUcATu4T8.

[6] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/06/02/us/police-protesters-together/index.html.

[7] There is general distrust by people even towards such positive police gestures, https://theappeal.org/cops-marching-in-police-violence-protests/.

[8] The Charlotte events are an example, https://www.businessinsider.com/charlotte-protests-keith-lamont-scott-shooting-north-carolina-2016-9.

[9] https://fairandjustprosecution.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/George-Floyd-Statement-FINAL.pdf .

[10] In Italy one of the cases that has shocked the country and became also a movie was that of Stefano Cucchi, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/14/italian-police-officers-jailed-12-years-2009-custody-death. Also in Belgium, see https://www.liberties.eu/en/news/droit-de-filmer-l-action-policiere-la-justice-appelee-au-service-des-droits-fondamentaux/16363

[11] For example the police shooting against a 15 year old in Athens caused a series of riots in 2008 in Greece https://www.theguardian.com/world/2008/dec/14/greece that have been repeated for years now every December.  

[12] Indicatively, see decisions: Khani Kabbara v. Cyprus 5.6.2018 (no. 24459/12), Mocanu and Others v. Romania (no. 10865/09), El-Masri v. the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (no. 39630/09)

[13] For example Amnesty International, https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2019/03/croatia-eu-complicit-in-violence-and-abuse-by-police-against-refugees-and-migrants/ .

[14]Human Rights Watch report https://www.hrw.org/report/2015/09/21/though-we-are-not-human-beings/police-brutality-against-migrants-and-asylum .

[15] For roma as victims of police brutality, example incidents from the news in various European countries: https://euobserver.com/coronavirus/148229 , https://www.thelocal.fr/20140408/roma , https://www.europarl.europa.eu/doceo/document/E-8-2018-001802_EN.html