A demonstrator, who declined to give her name, holds a mirror up to police officers forming a containment line in Oakland, Calif., on Wednesday during a protest against the shooting of Michael Brown, an unarmed black 18-year-old, by a white police officer in Ferguson, Mo. (Noah Berger/Associated Press)

The following is a guest post from Erica Marat of the College of International Security Affairs of the National Defense University. The views expressed here are her own. 


There was nothing special about the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9. It was not an isolated case — unarmed citizens are killed regularly by the police, other citizens and gangs. Just last month, four black men died at the hands of the police in questionable circumstances. Yet, some victims of police brutality, such as Michael Brown and Rodney King, become lightning rods for national debate, and outrage over their attacks may prompt changes in the way policing is done.

Why do some incidents of police violence mobilize the public into action, while others are dismissed as an everyday occurrence?

In my research on police reform in post-communist societies, I learned that it takes a special type of tragedy to prompt a politically engaged public to demand greater police accountability. While police violence is often seen as trivial, two factors can transform a routine occurrence into a catalyzing event.

First, the police must inflict bodily harm on what political scientists Margaret E. Keck and Kathryn Sikkink call “vulnerable individuals.” Importantly, such individuals have to be readily identified with a politically active population. Because the killing of Brown took place in an urban area, more people witnessed the incident or can relate to the circumstances. Brown’s age was also a factor and mobilized young people from other cities. Protests expressing anger with the Ferguson police spread across the country, and for many who participated, the African American background of the victim was probably not as important as the behavior of the police.

Second, a visual record of the violence plays a huge role. In 1991, if not for an accidental video recording of the Los Angeles police beating King, the incident probably would not have provoked a national outcry. In Ferguson, widely broadcast images of unarmed civilians and heavily armed SWAT teams sparked further protests. Likewise, videos of the brutal police crackdown on young, unarmed Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York City in 2011 stirred national outrage.

Without vulnerable individuals and captured images of violence, any debate on police misconduct is likely to be local and short-lived, and have limited impact on policy. In other words, when a homeless person is killed in a rural area, away from the public eye, the incident has fewer chances to become a matter of national discussion, let alone lead to a police reform.

In democratic countries, the police — as the embodiment of the state’s monopoly on the use of violence — represent a type of moral consensus between the public and the state on how violence is to be appropriately applied in everyday life and in extraordinary situations. The public has the power to influence the mission of the police through civic activity, elections, media and courts.  

The ongoing debate about what needs to be done to prevent more killings of an unarmed civilian reflects the state of U.S. society — the high level of gun ownership in the society and militarization of the state police compared with the rest of the Western world.

However, unlike in post-communist countries, which seek to demilitarize a police force originally created to support a totalitarian state, the demilitarization of the U.S. police is unlikely. Because the United States has a per capita gun ownership rate that is one of the highest in the Western world, the police must also be heavily militarized.

It is a self-reinforcing dynamic: The greater the possibility of deadly illegal behavior in society, the more armed the state becomes. That is, as long as the number of weapons present in society as a whole remains high, the police are unlikely to lay down any of their arms.

The shooting of an unarmed teenager, who the police had to assume could have had a weapon, will not change this situation. For the U.S. police to demilitarize, it will require public outcry after an incident in which bodily harm is caused by the police to an armed “vulnerable individual.” But such a scenario is highly unlikely.  

Post-communist countries such as Moldova, Georgia and Kyrgyzstan are gradually moving toward using fewer heavy weapons against civilians. The road to creating a democratic police force is still long for these countries, but the progress toward a more peaceful police is evident. Police forces there have been switching to using rubber bullets and tear gas, instead of lethal arms.  

As the leading donor in international police reform programs, the United States can demonstrate best practices to the world. The chief strength is depoliticization and decentralization of the police in the United States. Both attributes are also common goals in the post-communist world where police serve the political regime. Despite obvious setbacks, police units across the United States strive to improve their ability to serve communities with different racial and cultural backgrounds. Diversifying the police force is arguably a continuous, but achievable, process so long as there is enough institutional effort in place.

In the wake of Brown’s death, the United States can set an example of promoting racially and ethnically diverse police forces, each accountable to the community they serve. With the Ferguson incident gaining international attention, the way Missouri proceeds with the reform will show to other countries the prospects for democratic transformation of their police forces as well.