In the past few years, the American media has been inundated with news of atrocities committed by police officers, especially regarding the use of lethal force—so much so that the world is forced to wonder how its most powerful democratic State has managed to turn its law enforcement agencies against its own innocent civilians, a practice rampant in the dictatorial regimes. Inevitable comparisons with other developed democratic nations offer a stark reality: police officers in the US kill more people in a few weeks than their counterparts in Europe do in years.
Police officers in the US kill more people in a few weeks than their counterparts in Europe do in years.
In the American socio-political context, the issue is entrenched within the larger—and rather contentious—subject of the right to bear arms. Officers often justify the use of excessive, sometimes lethal, force with the rationale that they had reason to believe the victim was armed and thus posed a danger to the officer's life. Indeed, most European nations place extensive restrictions on the possession of arms by ordinary citizens (a notable exception is Switzerland, which enjoys a high gun homicide rate by European standards). With this in mind, it may appear to be the case that liberal gun laws are positively correlated with police killings.
This inference must be tempered by the fact that most European nations have far smaller population sizes than that of the United States. As such, the dynamics of a large and diverse nation would affect the crime rate and incidence of police brutality even if we consider the data in per capita terms. Therefore a comparison with India in this regard is uniquely poised to provide both insights and challenges.
India is a large, populous and diverse country just like the United States, but it is certainly not considered "developed" by most standards. It has very restrictive gun laws, but is notorious for "fake encounters", a term used by the Indian media to describe extra-judicial killings by the police which are made to appear like justifiable homicides.
In order to make an effective comparison we need to actually look at the statistics regarding police killings—and instances of police brutality in general—in both these countries. Unfortunately, there is a rather shocking paucity of data regarding police killings in the two nations. In the United States, the state and local law enforcement agencies are not obliged to report instances of police killings to the FBI or any other federal authority. This means that official statistics simply consist of voluntary reports sent to the federal government by certain agencies. Similarly, in India, there are numerous gaps and inconsistencies in the data collected by the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB).
Figure 1: Comparison of various reports of police killings in the United States
Fortunately, given the intense media scrutiny over the police shooting incidents in the United States, a number of independent news agencies and researchers have begun to compile and organise the data. The Guardian, for example, has meticulously tracked and documented the police killings which have occurred in the US since 2015. Not surprisingly, the figures in their report are far greater than the ones in official statistics.
On average, US law enforcement agencies kill more than five times the rate at which their Indian counterparts do...
In India there has not been a sustained and systematic effort to collect and document data about police shootings by third party investigators, even though there has been considerable coverage of individual cases of police shootings. While the NCRB data may be unreliable, it can be compared with official US estimates for police killings, given that the data in both cases are likely to be underestimates.
Figure 2: Comparison of official reports of police killings in the United States and India
It is important to note that the official American statistics only include data from those law enforcement agencies which voluntarily reported killings to the FBI. Further, the data only includes homicides ruled as justifiable by those agencies. Despite these restrictions, on average, US law enforcement agencies kill more than five times the rate at which their Indian counterparts do, a remarkable statistic given that India's population is more than three times that of the US.
So what drives this drastic difference in the rate of police shootings in the two countries? Is it the rate of violent crime? Eyeballing the data seems to suggest that this is not the case. The number of murders in the two countries, for example, is not commensurate with the number of police shootings.
Figure 3: Comparing the number of murders in the United States and India
These figures do little to shed light on the reason why American police officers kill so many more people than Indian ones, given that violent crime in India tends to be higher in absolute terms. However, a closer inspection of the data reveals that the proportion of murders committed by firearms is fairly low in India, with just 10.5 % of the murders committed between 2011 and 2015 ascribed to legal or illegal firearms. In the United States, this figure is much higher, with 61.2 % of the murders in 2015 having been committed using a firearm.
The easy access to firearms in the United States seems to have generated an arms race between the police and the criminals.
What does this data tell us? The easy access to firearms in the United States seems to have generated an arms race between the police and the criminals. Given the high gun-related crime rate, the police are forced to employ military level tactics in order to contain crime. Officers often anticipate criminal suspects to be armed and willing to shoot, and thus feel that the use of deadly force is often necessary in order to protect themselves and other civilians.
This is in sharp contrast with the Indian case where most criminals are either unarmed or possess crude country-made weapons. What is surprising, however, is that Indian policemen manage to kill fewer people in a given year despite the serious issues of internal insurgency which plague the country. There is no American parallel for the violent separatist movements in Kashmir, or the Maoist insurgency which affects many states in India.
The fact that a developed democratic nation like the United States, with no sustained violent internal conflicts, manages to routinely kill so many of its citizens is simply startling, a pointer to the price a nation has to pay for the unrestricted freedom of its citizens to possess arms.