A democratic society is comprised of three primary forms of power the legislature, the system that creates the laws which are passed by elected members of the parliament, the executive, the system that ensures the implementation of the laws approved by the legislature and the judiciary, the system that decides consequences for those who disobey the law. Although this system seems to be an effective method in running a democratic society, the system is not perfect. Despite the presence of the three structures which depend on each other for functioning, there are instances where those within the systems of power are flawed. This leads to the misuse of power, corruption and unequal treatment of citizens.
Despite the knowledge of knowing the corruption and the flawed system, some acts are overlooked as they are not deemed to be of much importance. Looking at the case of Jayaraj and Fenix, the case gathered massive attention as the misuse of the power of the Tamil Nadu state police led to the deaths of two individuals who were incarcerated for a minor crime.
The case began on the evening of nineteenth June 2020 when Jayaraj, was taken into custody by the police in the town of Sathankulam, a town in Thoothukudi district. The police were insistent on shops to close as they were open beyond the imposed curfew as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic. Jayaraj, who owned a mobile shop, disagreed with the police’s insistence for the closure of the shop hence had conveyed his disagreement the previous day. On the evening of the nineteenth, the police arrested him for his disagreement, and disobeying lockdown protocol and took him into custody. His son, Fenix, arrived at the station to inquire about his father following which he too was arrested.
In the station, the police physically assaulted Jayaraj and Fenix. The assault was carried out by two constables and two sub-inspectors. The assault continued throughout the night as the family of Jayaraj waited outside the station. The family was contacted periodically for an exchange of blood-soaked clothes of Jayaraj and Fenix for a fresh set of darker coloured clothing. The following morning they were released and taken to a hospital where on the evening of the twenty-second of June, Fenix died following which his father, Jayaraj also died early morning of the following day.
Currently, the case of the custodial deaths have been filed, but there have been no arrests made as of yet. Looking at the brutality and misuse of police power, the following article attempts to understand police brutality by looking at psychological theories, such as theories of punishment, confirmation bias, the psychology of obedience which create power structures that influence the continuation of police brutality.
Understanding Police Brutality
Theories of Punishment
Punishment is executed in various methods such as imprisonment and execution. Punishment is, however, challenged with maintaining a humanitarian aspect. Often the punishment imposed is unjust for the crime committed, as seen in the case of Jayaraj and Fenix. Theories of punishment, look at how punishment is decided and executed. Punishment is viewed as a justification for crimes committed as a means of creating justice. The theories look at various types of punishment which can be used to prevent crime. Some of the listed significant theories look at punishment through varying philosophies.
- Retribution – looks at punishment as a means of the moral need for the guilty to make reformations for the crime committed.
- Incapacitation – removes the ability of an individual to commit a crime by either life sentencing in confinement or execution of the individual.
- Deterrence – states fear in people of getting caught prevents crime rather than being influenced by morality.
- Rehabilitation – punishment is used as a means to make amends in a convicted individual by imprisonment where, through treatment and aiding in changing offender’s behaviour, the individual can be released back into society.
Looking at the case of Jayaraj and Fenix, the punishment imparted was incapacitation. Despite the unintentional deaths; the punishment was unfair as the crime committed was a minor offence which could have been resolved by retribution which could have been a payment of a fine with a warning. It must also be noticed that in the case, the punishment was executed by the police without consultation of the judiciary, which is unconstitutional. Despite the extremities of the punishment, the police staff who imparted it are yet to be convicted, which questions the effectiveness of the system of justice. This is not an isolated incident as there have been several cases of police brutality, yet it continues to occur. A potential cause for this can be the confirmation beliefs held by the police.
Confirmation Bias: A Reinforcer of Police Brutality
Confirmation bias is looking at information and only accept what is in concordance with one’s beliefs. Confirmation bias is dangerous as the more the biased information, the stronger the belief becomes even if it is a delusion. This leads to a strong resistance when the belief is criticised, which leads to conflict as a result of the disagreement. Johnson (2020) looks at the American police force and states that the biased police brutality against the blacks is confirmation bias. This can be argued with the fact that crime rates are assumed to be higher due to biased reporting, when in fact, in both black and white lower-class communities, the rates of violence remain the same.
However, during encounters, it has been proven that police are more likely to kill black people in encounters. This can also be attributed to the rates of encounter as black drivers are more likely to be pulled over for encounters in comparison to the white drivers. There has also been a history of a pattern of police killings of black people which can be attributed to the confirmation bias of police’s need justifying black killings as a result of blacks living in poverty in ghettos where violence is more prominent. This leads to (mostly white) police officers to use this information when encountering a black person to be more aggressive.
Comparisons can be made between the recent killing of George Floyd, a black man murdered by the police, and the case of Jayaraj and Fenix. The inherent bias towards blacks which led to the death of George sparked nationwide protests due to the brutality of his killing (officer suffocating him to death by kneeling on his neck). The incident called for acknowledgement of police biases in murders of several black people. In the Indian context, it can be compared to the police brutality against minorities such as Muslims, Dalits, people of the lower class, the Hijra community in India. The attacks and arrests are a result of confirmation bias as a result of the social oppression of these communities, which lead to crimes committed by members of these communities gaining more recognition. Hence the confirmation bias builds each time a person from these backgrounds is arrested or accused.
Looking at the Indian police, in the case of Jayaraj and Fenix, their religion, gender, and class status play a role in the police’s confirmation bias. People of lower classes are more likely to be convicted of a crime which can be attributed for the arrest. This can also be a result of most cases of violence reported are of the lower class and the gender of the two accused. 95.87% of those in prison are male, which promotes bias towards men. The religion of the accused (Christianity) which is a minority community makes them vulnerable to the police as minorities are easy to accuse of crimes as they are victims of the social bias in favour of the Hindu majority.
The Psychology of Authority and Obedience
Police forces implement the laws which give them positions of power and authority, in the case of Jayaraj and Fenix the assault by the two constables and two sub-inspector. It must be noted that constables have the lowest position (14) and sub-inspectors are also amongst the lowest (11) in the 14 rank ranking system. This implies that the order for the brutal attacks came from a person in a higher position of power, such as a Police Inspector (9). The assault was carried out throughout the night, and this could have been a result of the constables and sub-inspectors being forced into obeying commands. The power of superiors commands and obedience has been studied before in the Milgram Shock Experiment. (1963) Stanley Milgram’s experiment looked at a person’s extent to obey command even if it meant inflicting harm on another individual.
The experiment consisted of 40 males recruited from various occupations. The participants were told that the experiment was to test learning. Before the experiment began, the participants were introduced to a second participant, a confederate of Milgram. The participants would pick straws to decide the learner and the teacher for a word memory test. However, it was ensured that each time the confederate was the learner, the participant was the “experimenter”. The experimenter was brought into a room separated by a screen, with a voltage box with voltages varying from 15 to 400 volts. The learner was asked questions about memory in a word game. For each wrong answer, the experimenter was asked to administer a shock. There was a hike in the voltage following every wrong answer. The learner was asked to make fake sounds of distress and plead the experimenter to stop. However, Milgram, who was with the experimenters, insisted that he continue. It was noticed that despite the high voltages and pain expressed by the learner, 65% of participants administered the highest voltage of 450 volts while the rest continued till 300 volts.
Despite the knowledge of extreme voltages causing pain, the persuasion from Milgram encouraged the administration of volts. The following experiment demonstrated the power of an authority figure and the human need to obey and comply with orders, in this case, administering extreme levels of electricity.
Looking at the observations of Milgrims’s study the police brutality carried out by the Tamil Nadu police can also be compared to the need to obey commands as the power of an authority figure also influenced the constables and sub-inspectors. Police brutality tends to thrive off this as the officers who give the command are rarely the ones to implement the punishment on the convicted. Hence, the power imbalance creates a pathway for police officers in power to assault the convicted for the 24 hours they are allowed to keep them in captive.
The system of police brutality is based on a system of authority and oppression. The systematic oppression of communities through history creates a hierarchy which is discriminatory towards the lower hierarchies. The case of Jayaraj and Fenix is spoken about but only in limited spaces. The limited broadcasted is a representation of the hegemony where custodial abuse is given minimal attention. Those who chose to challenge the hegemony are oppressed as well. Suchithra, also from Thoothukudi, spoke up about the issue which caused a social media stir. However, she was asked to take down the video by the police.
The intensity of the punishment imparted is what led to the outcry as the custodial murder is not a form of punishment acceptable for the crime. The discriminatory system creates space for minorities to be victimised by the system. The bias within the police is also a reason for the arrest which can only be destructured by statistics which can prove the confirmation bias within the police. The present structuring of the police is a vertical structure, where power is biased from the top, which creates a drastic power imbalance. This results in impositions of harsh punishments. Hence instead of a horizontal structure where the hierarchies are limited with more positions at the same level creates room for criticism of authority.
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