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Reviewed by:
  • Police Abuse in Contemporary Democracies ed. by Michelle D. Bonner, et al.
  • J. Patrice McSherry
Bonner, Michelle D., Guillermina Seri, Mary Rose Kubal, and Michael Kempa. Police Abuse in Contemporary Democracies. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018.

The ambitious theoretical goal of this book is to deepen and complicate narrow, procedural political science concepts of democracy by incorporating the phenomenon of police abuse. Analysis of such abuse, the editors argue, is absent in most of the discipline's literature on democracy. But police abuse can corrode democratic regimes and enforce exclusionary concepts of citizenship, impoverishing the nature of democracy. Police and police abuse are a form of governance, the book shows: they define and delimit the rule of law at the ground level and impact the lived experience of democracy for large populations. Moreover, the editors contend, police abuse is not solely a legacy of authoritarian states. It is present in democratic regimes and is not simply an "aberration" that can [End Page 443] be overcome through better training or technical fixes. The book locates policing at the center of processes "through which the state imposes order and governs the population's access to rights" (11). The editors introduce three major categories that are identified with democracy but are profoundly affected by policing and police abuse: citizenship, accountability, and socioeconomic (in) equality.

The editors point out that "police officers make discretionary decisions by distinguishing between citizens deserving protection and others perceived as suspect and as a threat to the former" (14). Populations made up of the marginalized or the poor, ethnic or racial minorities, immigrants, or anti-government protesters may find themselves "dismissed, criminalized, or subjected to violence" (14). The book's linkage of socioeconomic stratification and structural analysis with the function of policing is a particularly welcome contribution. As author M. M. Müller puts it, "Even in 'consolidated' democracies, the main function of the police has always been the (re)production of order—including its underlying divisions along class and ethnic lines" (224). Several other chapters add solid case studies that substantiate this theoretical link, analyzing police violence against "the dangerous classes" as a means of preserving and advancing the political and economic interests of the state and the upper classes.

The authors analyze a range of case studies in France, the United States, South Africa, Canada, India, Chile, Brazil, and Argentina. Some scholars point to colonial legacies and others to police use of counterinsurgency-style methods to exercise social control. I mention here, for reasons of space, only a few chapters. Comparing India and Argentina, G. Seri and J. Lokaneeta emphasize the unique prerogatives of police, including the power of life and death. Deadly abuse exposes the role of the police "in reinforcing societal inequalities and inscribing citizenship's boundaries" (58). R. Squillacote and L. Feldman analyze citizen-based forms of vigilance over the police, such as Cop Watch in the United States. They argue that "citizen participation in government accountability is at the heart of Cop Watch's democratic nature … [and] its adversarial nature" (153). They believe that earlier forms of citizen involvement, such as community control and civilian review boards, did not succeed because of their limited input into policy and significant resistance by police departments (148). In their chapter, C. Davenport, R. McDermott, and D. Armstrong find that the race of US police, protesters, and observers is a key variable affecting attitudes toward dissent, policing, and responsibility. Race—long a central [End Page 444] fissure in U.S. history and politics—shapes the opinions and perceptions of those who observe police-protester confrontations.

M. Clarke shows that in post-apartheid South Africa, police violence continues to be disproportionally aimed at poor black communities. Extreme poverty and inequality persist there and aggressive police crime-fighting methods target those who protest these conditions, participate in strikes, or challenge the neoliberal project. Thus, the police "reinforce the continued socioeconomic exclusion of a large percentage of society" (197). Müller's chapter on Brazil demonstrates that police adapted new counterinsurgency-style methods learned in Colombia and Haiti to conduct armed "pacification" in Rio de Janeiro. Selective application of the law resulted in heavy police intervention in the favelas...


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pp. 443-445
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