In February of 2015 The Guardian reported that the Chicago police department were using a warehouse known as Homan Square as a black site to detain and interrogate criminal suspects, who have accused the police of torture and cruel treatment in the form of beating and sexual assault, leading to at least two deaths. Severe police violence does not make the US unique among democracies. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war has resulted in thousands of extralegal killings by the national police; in Brazil, a campaign of police violence in Rio during the lead-up to the 2016 Summer Olympics led two human rights organizations to call the city’s police “the most violent in the world.”
These episodes do not fit comfortably with research on state violence for two reasons. First, such abuse is known to be rare in democracies relative to non-democracies. Second, this research focuses mostly on the repression of dissent, but the violence described above does not target dissidents. It targets criminal suspects, the homeless, and others who are not challenging the government’s political authority. Annual reports written by Amnesty International and the US State Department, which for decades have been used to create quantitative indices of state violence, reflect this fact. Many of the abuses discussed in these reports target vulnerable social groups beyond dissidents, but most indices do not distinguish between these two types of violence. It is possible that democracy’s apparent pacifying effects merely reflect the fact that democracies use less violence against dissidents, and that this relationship does not extend to violence against other groups.
The Ill-Treatment and Torture (ITT) Data, which cover 147 countries from 1995 to 2005, can be disaggregated by victim type and agency responsible for custody. In our study published in Research and Politics we took advantage of this useful feature to explore the relationship between police violence and two institutions associated with democracy: political competition and judicial independence. We used several measures of competition and judicial independence and examined (separately) violence that targets dissidents, criminal suspects, and members of marginalized social groups.
There was strong evidence to suggest that these institutions decrease torture that targets dissidents. This is consistent with prior research, and is unsurprising. However, we found only mixed evidence that these institutions reduce torture that targets criminals, and no compelling evidence that either competition or judicial independence decrease the use of torture against marginalized groups. These results are noteworthy and suggest that one of the strongest findings in the literature must be qualified: some vulnerable groups do not enjoy the protection created by political competition and strong courts of law. If the episodes discussed above are aberrant, it is only because police violence does not typically rise to the level seen in these cases, not because such violence is occurring in democracies.
Joshua Jackson is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His research interests include factors associated with rebel group cooperation and conflict as well as externalities of civil war.
Daniel W. Hill, Jr. is an Associate Professor in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia. His research interests include state violence, international human rights law, and quantitative methods.
Shelby Hall is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of International Affairs at the University of Georgia. Her research interests include foreign policy responses to human rights abuses and humanitarian crises, and the effects of INGO pressures on domestic politics.
Joshua Jackson, Daniel W. Hill, Jr., Shelby Hall
First Published March 1, 2018