On 9 August 2014, Michael Brown was shot dead by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri after a brief altercation that allegedly left the officer in question, Darren Wilson, fearing for his life. The shooting of Michael Brown came soon after the death of Eric Garner, another unarmed citizen choked to death by a police officer in New York on July 17 for the crime of selling loose cigarettes without authorization. On November 23, a twelve year old boy named Tamir Rice was shot dead by police in Cleveland, Ohio after he was spotted carrying a gun that ultimately proved to be a toy. In all three cases, the victims of the lethal force employed by the police were black.

Over the past couple of months, the United States has been wracked by ongoing protests and demonstrations against the police. Other than the fact that in all three cases unarmed citizens were ruthlessly killed on the flimsiest of pretexts, these protests are aimed at highlighting how members of ethnic and racial minorities, particularly from the African American community, are routinely targeted and victimized by the police. The issue has been compounded by the way in which two separate Grand Juries, convened to investigate the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, have failed to indict the white police officers responsible for the deaths. For many African Americans in the United States, the failure to properly investigate these incidents, coupled with a reluctance to prosecute and hold accountable the perpetrators of police violence, is symptomatic of the deep and abiding way in which racism continues to rear its head in everyday life.

The problem is not one that is restricted to the United States. In 1999 the Macpherson Report, charged with investigating the London Metropolitan Police’s handling of the Stephen Lawrence case, in which a sixteen year old black teenager was killed by a gang of white assailants, declared the police to be ‘institutionally racist’. According to the Report, the police failed to discharge their duties effectively, largely as a result of a reluctance to acknowledge the attack had been racially motivated and because of a demonstrated lack of interest in taking the case seriously. More recently, the 2011 riots in London were prompted by the killing of Mark Duggan, another black man murdered by the police on erroneous and trumped up charges.

In the United States, an increasingly militarized police force possessing tremendous control over the means of coercion has routinely abused its power, with inadequate training and excessive power facilitating tragedies such as the ones described above. As the case of Dillon Taylor shows, killed by a police officer in Salt Lake City despite being unarmed and posing no threat, white people have also suffered as a result of the police’s almost untrammelled exercise of power. However, the fact that African Americans are disproportionately subjected to such violence is indicative of broader forces at work. Attitudes towards racial and ethnic minorities, stretching back to the days of outright slavery and extending to contemporary debates on immigration, have long revolved around the demonization of these communities, associating them with criminal activity and lawlessness. Historically, this has served to justify their policing in the name of ‘social order,’ representing yet another mechanism through which their position as an underclass was, and is, perpetuated. That these attitudes might be pervasive and widely shared is demonstrated by the inability of successive Grand Juries to even indict the officers involved in the most recent spate of police killings.

It is clear that any lasting solution to the current crisis in the United States is one that will have to address the pernicious and toxic legacy of slavery, segregation, and the persistent forms of institutional and everyday racism that continue to shape society. It is also clear that the United States, a country long wedded to the idea that guns solve problems, needs to reassess its approach to policing and, indeed, the use of violence to regulate public life. As much has been said recently by the United Nations Committee Against Torture and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, both of which have criticized the United States for its tolerance of police brutality and its lack of accountability for violent police activities.

The events in the United States over the past few months should also prompt us to once again consider the role played by the police in Pakistan. Earlier this week, blind protestors peacefully demonstrating against the government on Davis Road in Lahore were mercilessly beaten by the Punjab Police. In the wake of this incident little, if anything, has been done to punish the officers responsible for this vicious display of coercion by the police. The memory of the PAT workers killed by the police in June this year is still fresh and despite inquiries, reports, and dharnas, no action has been taken to hold the police accountable for what happened. Every day, the police in Pakistan engage in torture and extortion, even as extra-judicial killings remain an ugly and unfortunate fact of life in this country. While failing in their primary responsibility to protect the people of this country, the police continue to act at the bidding of their political masters by raining violence upon any and all who dare to challenge the powers that be. Workers, doctors, clerks, women’s rights activists, all have been at the receiving of police batons in the recent past, with the police doing little more than serving the interests of the political and economic elite. The sheer absurdity of the situation can be gauged from how, three weeks ago, dacoits in Ghotki actually protested against police extortion!

There are clearly some deep-rooted issues with the police in Pakistan that need long and careful consideration if they are to be addressed. Poor training, inadequate remuneration, political interference and nepotism, and an institutionalized culture of rent-seeking, all are things that give rise to the types of abuses that characterize the police at present. While the context may be completely different, it is clear that in Ferguson and Lahore, serious questions need to be raised about the role and conduct of the police in society.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS