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Release peace: the magazine

Release peace: the magazine

Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs

Surprising Revelations on When the Police Use Deadly Force in Brazil and the Philippines

Article by: Helen Kurvits

This article was published as part of a cooperation with the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), one of Europe’s leading peace & security think tanks, and draws from this paper by Peter Kreuzer and Ariadne Natal.

Data from Both Countries

Brazil and the Philippines, 20,000 km apart, have an unfortunate commonality: Both stand out in their respective regions in regard to the number of people killed by the police. According to an in-depth analysis by the Peace Research Institute Frankfurt (PRIF), this is the case when looking at absolute numbers as much as per capita figures. In Brazil, the high numbers have been persisting for many years. The Philippines witnessed rather low figures until 2015 but the numbers skyrocketed in 2016 when Rodrigo Duterte became president and began an intensified campaign to reduce drug proliferation which was also marked by extrajudicial killings and condemned by human rights organisations. Despite the defects, both countries are relatively consolidated democracies. Police violence in Brazil and in the Philippines is not uniformly distributed but varies across time and space. In a report by Peter Kreuzer and Ariadne Natal from PRIF, they looked at whether the difference can be explained by structural variables. For both countries they took into account levels of poverty, inequality, urbanisation, and crime. These were complemented by a number of variables that were only available for one country.

Consensus Theory

From a theoretical perspective, police violence may be explained by consensus theory which sees societies as places of shared values, goals, and articulation that work to establish harmony. In this case, law enforcement is geared toward reflecting societies’ aims and acts to guarantee them. The police should meet the defence needs of society as a whole and not the needs of any specific groups of society. Violations of law are threats to society that law enforcement institutions must address. Other than in conflict theory, which will be discussed below, the interests of powerful groups have no specific role in determining social threat. Instead, perceived threats derive from socially shared values. Therefore, higher levels of crime should also coincide with higher levels of policing and police use of deadly force. Put simply, consensus theory assumes that police violence is a reaction to the violence in the environment the police are operating.

Conflict Theory

Another theoretical explanation to police violence is conflict theory that takes as its core the assumption that societies are economically and racially divided. According to this theory, such divisions make the political and economic elites use the state apparatus and institutions to safeguard their interests and law enforcement becomes a tool to secure the demands of the ruling classes. State institutions guarantee the protection and security of those who are in power. The greater the inequality in society, the worse the living conditions and the larger the threat to elite interests, the greater the role of coercion (the practice of persuasion through force or threat). As the status quo is an unstable condition, it needs to be preserved by sanctions or the threat of sanctions.

Police Use of Deadly Force in Brazil

Police use of deadly force in Brazil has witnessed a spike over the past decade (around 210 per cent) with the sharpest increase between 2016 and 2018 which coincides with the presidential term of Michel Temer. The analysis by the PRIF of police use of deadly violence in Brazil shows mixed results for conflict and consensus theory between 2011 and 2015. Looking at the structural conditions, such as race, level of inequality, poverty and unemployment, police lethality appeared to be more frequent in more populous and less poor states. The latter directly contradicts the expectations based on conflict theory. Later, between 2016 and 2021, only unemployment showed a correlation. As to the consensus theory, factors such as the homicide rate, carjacking, drug trafficking, drug use, possession of illegal firearms, and military police killed on duty were considered in the report. Between 2011 and 2015, only carjacking showed a correlation with police use of deadly force. Between 2016 and 2021, the homicide rate proved to be the only variable showing a significant correlation with higher levels of lethal police violence. Overall, the explanatory power of structural variables linked to either consensus or threat theory was decidedly low in the case of Brazil.

Police Use of Deadly Force in the Philippines

Examining the police use of deadly violence in the Philippines showed unexpected and mixed results. The analysis was further complicated by the lack of official data on police use of deadly force in the Philippines which only covered national and not sub-national levels. Thus, the researchers obtained the data through online media analysis and from the ABS-CBN Investigative and Research Group which provides the most reliable dataset on police violence in the context of the “war on drugs”. The research revealed that larger, more urbanized, and densely populated areas tend to experience higher levels of police use of deadly force. An examination of the structural factors showed unexpected results largely contradicting predictions of both consensus and conflict theory. The fact that the police tended to use less deadly force in poorer regions goes strongly against conflict theory. Support for consensus theory is weak, as the only link between crime and police use of deadly force is local drug prevalence. Surprisingly, there is no correlation with serious crime.

Local Determinants at Play

A closer look at police’s use of deadly force in Brazil and the Philippines reveals mixed results for the conflict and consensus theories. Support for either of the theories is highly dependent on which country is looked at and when. Unemployment and violent control of the population during economic crises in Brazil provide some support for conflict theory. On the other hand, police use of force also correlated with carjacking and homicide, providing support for consensus theory. The results of measuring the use of deadly police force in the Philippines likewise only yield spurious support for consensus theory, as drug prevalence was positively linked to the police use of deadly force. Empirical results directly contradicted the expectations of conflict theory, as poverty showed an inverse correlation to police use of deadly force. Overall, the study showed macro-level explanations as consensus and conflict theories have serious limitations. Focussing on highly abstract macro-variables, they neglect intermediate factors like national, subnational or organizational cultures, norms and values, as well as institutional structures that may interfere between structure and social practice.

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