Police reforms in Europe and America are understood as the process of making the police less brutal in their methods of enforcing law, especially on minorities. In India, police reforms at the state level mean freeing them from politicians’ control. For our Opposition-ruled states, it means stopping forays by central police agencies with political intent to destabilize their governments.
The series of incidents beginning with the George Floyd killing, ending with the trial and conviction of Derek Michael Chauvin, a 45-year-old White Minneapolis police officer on April 20, 2021, by a 12-member multi-racial jury could be considered as a watershed incident in the police reforms movement in USA. Chauvin’s sentencing is on June 25.
This incident also reveals under what exacting conditions the police are working in some US cities, including facing racial tensions within their own department and non-cooperation from police unions. Yet what saves them from such crises is the strict rule of law, transparency, functional autonomy without political interference and support from the public and media.
On May 25, 2020 which was the “Memorial Day”, a holiday in remembrance of the fallen warriors, George Floyd was apprehended on a suspicion that he was passing a counterfeit 20 dollar bill. He was reported to have resisted arrest and was held down by Chauvin on a “neck hold” for 9 minutes. Chauvin ignored Floyd’s pathetic pleas that he could not breathe which were caught on camera.
One of the SOPs followed by some police departments in US including Minneapolis is allowing what is called “choke-hold”, including “neck-hold” to subdue a violent law-breaker while resisting arrest.
Initially it was thought that Chauvin had gone wrong in his judgment while implementing the Minneapolis police manual, which permitted "compressing one or both sides of a person’s neck with an arm or leg without applying direct pressure to the trachea or airway”.
However, the manual also had said that pressure should be released when the “threat” from the suspect had subsided. In the Floyd’s case, Chauvin continued to apply pressure for 3 minutes even after he stopped breathing.
Investigation by USA TODAY revealed that a similar death had occurred in 2010 when 28-year-old David Smith had died when he was pinned down with a knee to the back for about four minutes. NBC News said that Minneapolis police had used neck hold 237 times during the last 5 years during which 44 had become unconscious.
Minneapolis police department is largely a White Police force of 900 officers in a city which has 80% White population. Medaria Arradondo, Police Chief of Minneapolis is the first African American to hold charge as the city police chief. His interview with CBS News on June 21, 2020 revealed that he along with 4 other minority officers had to sue their department 13 years ago to get justice after being victims of racial harassment.
Yet the first action Arradondo did after the Floyd incident was to fire all the involved White officers. Secondly, he declared that the controversial SOP did not permit “applying your entire bodyweight” on a person who had stopped resisting. Thirdly, he immediately rescinded the SOP which permitted “neck holds”. This would indicate the level of professional freedom police officials in US enjoy, duly backed by law even while serving a racially divided community.
Arradondo also told CBS his managerial problems. First, it is from the Police Union led by Robert Kroll, who had sent Ku Klux Klan hate mails to him and other minority officers using inter office mail. They sued the police department and settled it for US$ 740,000.
He admitted that the existing contract with the local police union had stymied his freedom for disciplinary action against erring officials as it permitted those who were fired or disciplined to bring the matter before “arbitration”. It is for this reason that Chauvin with a record of 17 complaints against him had received only 2 letters of reprimand.
Following the Floyd incident, states like Connecticut, California, Florida, New York, Washington State and cities like Austin, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Phoenix, Seattle, Washington DC have banned “chokeholds”. President Joe Biden has now instituted a Justice Department inquiry for effecting countrywide police reforms.
(The writer is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat. Views expressed are personal.)