In a given year, 4,224 people are killed by police brutality in Brazil (2016), 1,147 in the U.S. (2017), and 11 in Germany (2016). In England and Wales, only 55 people have been shot in the past 24 years. While the high rate of fatal shootings in the U.S. seems to be grounds for outrage, it is also a function of social context. American police are 36 times deadlier than German police, but they are also 35 times more likely to get killed on the job. This relationship also applies to the divide in killings committed by law enforcement between the U.S. and Brazil: In 2015, Brazil experienced 27 homicides per 100,000 citizens, compared to five in the U.S. and only one in Germany. Legislative incentives also play a significant role. Consider El Salvador, where police killings surged from 39 in 2013 to 591 in 2015 after Vice President Oscar Ortiz urged the police to respond with force against gang members “without any fear of suffering consequences.” The comparison between the three regions — Latin America, North America and Europe — exposes that two general factors incentivize police brutality: violence-endorsing legislative systems and officers’ fear due to varying degrees of danger on the job. Because of the high prevalence of violent drug cartels and corrupt judicial systems, a change in legislature won’t solve the problem in Latin America, but it might very well in the U.S. The country should follow Florida’s example and strive towards that of Western European states such as Switzerland in drastically implementing gun control to create a complementary, dual effect: reduced civil shootings and police brutality.
The drivers of violence-endorsing legislatures vary across region. In Latin America, powerful drug cartels together with weak and corrupt judicial systems incentivize heightened police brutality. The movie City of God, nominated for four Oscars, vividly illustrates the linear relationship between civil and police violence. In El Salvador, the international crime group MS-13 spreads terror among the population through unforgiving extortion demands which affect about 70 percent of El Salvadorian businesses. The simple but effective policy of the gang is this: pay your bribe or die. One businessman, in the bus industry (as most victims are), got tired of his daily $1 payments and stopped; three weeks later, after leaving a handwritten note, two gang members killed the man for $21, his son recounts. The police in El Salvador are powerless against the 60,000-member strong gang. The bureaucracy of investigations is slow and involves high risks for victims, who continue paying the bribe and risk losing their life as the gang uncovers their collaboration with state authorities. Thus, police brutality is a desperate attempt to combat bureaucratic insufficiency and combat MS-13 violence in a pragmatic way.
El Salvador is not a standalone example. In Jamaica, a country of 2 million inhabitants, 101 citizens were killed by law enforcement in 2015. This represents 8 percent of the country’s reported homicides. Much of crime in Jamaica, the largest Caribbean marijuana exporter to the United States, can be attributed to gang violence. However, the legislative response to gang induced police brutality in Jamaica is the polar opposite of El Salvador’s iron fist approach. In 2010, the country introduced the parliamentary Independent Commission of Investigations (INDECOM), specifically responsible for cases of police actions resulting in the death or injury. The change in legislative stance manifested itself in 2014 when killings by police halved from 200 plus until 2013 to 115 and below in the following years. Over the same timeframe, albeit the reduction in police killings, civil homicide rates experienced no change, evidencing the ineffectiveness of police brutality in their mitigation.
In the United States, violence-endorsing legislative agendas manifest themselves in racism. A recent study published by researchers of the Boston University School of Public Health in January 2018 illustrates a positive correlation between structural racism and fatal police shootings of unarmed African Americans. To measure states’ legislative racism, the researchers analyzed data on incarceration, employment, economic, and education rate gaps as well as racial segregation, which was the most significant determinant of heightened police brutality. This might also explain why the introduction of body cameras for police officers in Washington, DC, failed. When officers are in accordance with the law, surveillance won’t change their behavior. Yet, racism is not the only factor. Attractivity of the job and thus quality of candidates also plays an important role. James Stewart, president of Newark Fraternal Order Police, exclaims in a Frontline documentary on policing the police: “They have minimal starting pay, we’re going to take away half of your benefits […] Who’s going to take the job?”
Further contributing to police brutality is fear. In a report on police violence in Latin America, the Economist shows a linear relationship between killings by law enforcement and the number of homicides in a country. In this global country comparison, El Salvador, with 81 murders per 100,000 citizens, is leading the list. While not as exorbitantly high, the U.S. still suffers a three to five times higher homicide rate than its European counterparts. Furthermore, officers in the U.S. also face greater danger on the job. From 2000 to 2014, 2445 officers were killed in line of duty in the U.S. while only 25 were killed over the same time frame in the U.K.
While high rates of civil gun ownership provide the basis for this trend, a heightened social climate of violence and fear is further facilitated by loose gun laws. Take Switzerland as an example: As one of the last Western European countries with mandatory conscription for all male citizens, it is common for men to buy the weapons they used during their eight-month long draft. As a result, gun ownership in Switzerland stands at 25 percent – remarkably similar to America’s 30 percent. Yet, Switzerland has not had a mass shooting since 2001, when 14 people got killed in the town of Zug. In 2014, law enforcement officers used their weapons a total of eleven times, and none of these were fatal. Indeed, the country’s low rates of crime and police brutality are tied to strict gun laws. While the U.S. allows fully-automatic weapons built before 1968, Switzerland imposes a strict ban and requires authorization of half-automatic guns. Hunting guns and imitation firearms need to be registered and stored unloaded and separately from other weapons. The deciding difference between the two countries, according to ex-U.S. policewoman and political scientist Erin Zimmerman, who now lives in Switzerland, lies in the countries’ divergent mentalities towards guns. The Swiss primarily own guns for hunting and trusts the state to protect citizens’ personal freedoms, while the average American mistrusts the state and thus arms himself to ensure his own security, which the state supposedly cannot provide.
Florida’s gun laws, enacted after the massacre in Parkland on February 14, are a step in the right direction. They raise the minimum age for purchase from 18 to 21, ban bump stocks, and introduce a three-day waiting period on all gun purchases — yet they also allowed school staff to carry guns. Even after the Florida tragedy, legislatures struggle to adopt a Swiss approach and instead endorses further civil armament. This exposes a fundamental conundrum. The famous right to bear arms is not only written in the American Constitution but also engraved in people’s minds, preventing the institution of Switzerland-like gun control, without which the needed change in mentality will never occur.