Reforming Policing Institutions: A Closer Look At EndSARS and BLM

Christina Prinvil is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPP student.

The following is an op-ed and does not necessarily reflect the views of Policy Perspectives or the Trachtenberg school.

In 2013, three women, Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi created the Black Lives Matter (BLM) platform to bring awareness to the dehumanization of Black lives in America, which is often exacerbated by the lack of justice in policing incidents pertaining to innocent young Black men. In the first half of 2020, following the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd by the hands of Kentucky and Minnesota police officers, the BLM movement galvanized nationwide support as more Americans marched and demanded accountability from policing institutions than ever before. As tensions rose, incidents of violence furthered the divide between protestors and the police. 

While American policymakers debated policies from reform to abolition, more extreme civil unrest broke out in Nigeria over the country’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) in October, reminding Americans at home of how quick solutions to long-term policing problems can result in drastic consequences. As American policymakers introduce new legislation aimed at police reform and accountability, a look to the evolution of the SARS movement in Nigeria may prevent similar mistakes.

The Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) and Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement highlight the need for reform within policing institutions. Policing creates a form of power that can oppress and victimize vulnerable communities, with no real consequence for abuses of power on the part of the police. To move towards sustainable and effective change, these governments must reform their criminal justice systems to create a more equal structure of power between policing institutions and the people.

Understanding SARS

To address violent crimes terrorizing the Nigerian community, specifically robberies and kidnappings, the Nigerian Police Force created SARS in 1984. While the unit achieved its intended aim to decrease violent crimes, members of the unit soon became key players in perpetuating the violence that they once  worked to disband. The SARS unit participated in organized crimes that stereotyped, tortured, and murdered members of the community. In some cases, Nigerians were harassed for carrying iPhones and wearing modern day clothing. When asked why these individuals were stopped, SARS members claimed that the clothing in question indicated an association with larger crime groups

On Oct. 3rd, a widespread video on social media displayed the unjustified killing of a young man by a SARS officer. In response to his death, thousands of people took to the streets of Lagos in protest of SARS brutality. Demonstrators, mostly young people, demanded the government disband the SARS unit. Protestors used hashtags such as #ENDSARS and #ENDPOLICEBRUTALITY to promote support of the movement on social media.

On Oct. 12th, President Muhammadu Buhari announced the dissolution of SARS. The global community viewed this action as a step towards ending police brutality. Although successful in their demands of disbanding SARS, Nigerians have accepted this small victory as a fleeting moment, spoiled by continuous injustice as the new units continue to recruit and redeploy officers of the previous SARS unit. Today, government involvement has diminished the protests. Allegedly, activists claim the government is now targeting members of the movement, while proactively banning protests in Lagos all together and censoring social media posts. Despite current suppression by the government, protestors will continue to speak out against policy brutality with their efforts reaffirmed by the mobilization of the masses that led the world to stop and focus on abuses by SARS in Nigeria. 

Similarities to The Black Lives Matter Movement in The US

The Nigerian community’s response to SARS brutality and the dismantlement of the SARS unit have led American organizers and activists to discuss how elements of the SARS movement resemble the BLM movement.  Like the SARS movement, thousands of people, mostly young people, took to the streets to protest the excessive use of police brutality in support of BLM. The recent killing of George Floyd led to protests demanding public officials defund or abolish the police, similar to Nigerians demanding the abolition of the SARS unit. In both of these movements, social media outcry and posts led the world to stop and open their eyes to the brutality caused by policing institutions. 

Additionally, these two movements expose ongoing societal concerns as protestors of both BLM and SARS continue to challenge the status quo of complex policy issues like policing institutions and criminal justice reform. Both movements add to the growing discussion of the use of civic pressure through protests for policy changes as a means to create the equitable society many Americans and Nigerians seek. 

Current U.S. Policy Initiatives Toward Policing Reform

As local and state governing bodies look to make small steps toward reform,  a recent push towards eliminating qualified immunity and banning no-knock warrants has pervaded the national conversation. Federal legislators proposed The George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2020 – H.R. 7120 –  which seeks to disqualify immunity for state and local officers.  If passed, H.R. 7120 could lead to immense ramifications for police officers. The bill will nullify the Good Faith Exception, an officer’s ability to justify action with legal jurisdiction if they believe their actions are in accordance with the law. A few states have pushed to remove no-knock warrants, a warrant that allows officers to legally enter certain residences without knocking or making their presence known beforehand. Leading the effort, Virginia Governor Ralph North, recently signed into effect legislation banning no-knock warrants

All in all, both the BLM and EndSARS movements showcase the power and will of the people. These public movements have led to small steps towards reform through policy initiatives like H.R. 7120 and the proposed removal of no-knock warrants in the U.S. They have provided people with hope that change can happen on the ground. However, if nothing else changes to address larger policing issues, the U.S. could follow the fate of Nigeria; solving one problem only to create another.

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