Joint 3rd Place Scholarship Award
Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism
Tusha Mittal is an investigative journalist covering politics, development and national security. Originally from India, she first began reporting as an undergraduate student at DePauw University. In 2008, she returned home to work for Tehelka, a New-Delhi based investigative news magazine.
Even while India emerged as an economic power, her work documented the country’s underbelly – the fault lines of mining and environment, the “honor killings” of women who dared to love, and the indoctrination of children in radical religious camps.
In 2009, when the Indian government deployed troops to combat left-wing Maoist insurgents, Tusha found herself traveling through the conflict zone. She reported on many human rights violations – the extra-judicial killings of civilians as insurgents, the burning of entire villages in scorched-earth operations, and the rape of tribal women by security forces.
At Columbia University, she is currently working on a project tracking global migration to the Gulf. She graduates in May 2015 with a Master’s in political journalism. Her work has won journalism awards, including India’s Chameli Devi Jain prize given annually for a body of reportage.
Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Akai Gurley. And a homeless man called “Africa.” These are now household names in the United States. Their killings, and the subsequent grand jury acquittals of two officers involved, have triggered mass protest in America and the world.
At the heart of the public outrage are crucial questions on race and class – were the police killings racially motivated? These questions are not new in a country with historically fraught racial tensions, from the race riots of Detroit in 1967 to Los Angeles in 1992.
Yet, as the small town of Ferguson becomes a contemporary media obsession and #BlackLivesMatter trends on twitter, it is easy to forget that these four men are not the only police killings in the last nine months.
Stunningly, there is no reliable national data on how many others have been killed, or how many officers have been convicted for it. The U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation only records data on police killing as “justified homicides.” It does not even recognize killings that may be unjustified. A recent Wall Street Journal investigation revealed that even this limited data maybe flawed. Comparing the F.B.I. tally to homicides reported by 105 individual police departments, the Journal found that the national agency had not recorded at least 500 police killings.
Though the absence of credible data makes it harder to arrive at definite conclusions on the nature of police killings, what is clear is that the stories of Brown and Garner are not shocking outliers, but often the forgotten norm. How is it then that some killings leap frog from routine anonymity to centre stage? What about those killings is different? Perhaps, one common factor is the presence of videos circulating on social media – either CCTV footage or shot by an onlooker – that captures the killing in real time. But a damning video is just that; it cannot lead to police accountability or reform.
While it ought be journalism’s role to ask the larger uncomfortable questions, the media has more often been reactive – following an agenda set on social media by what happens to become a trend, rather than guided by journalistic enquiry. Perhaps that is why the police killings of other minorities – Latinos or black women – are yet to find the same media attention as the killing of black men finally has.
The second fallout of a social media driven agenda is the question of which issues gets salience. The recent killings have – legitimately – focused attention on the persistence of race in American life. What has been missing, however, are similar debates on process of policing itself, on the culture of impunity, the lack of oversight, the role of guns and wider police reform.
While some sections of media have simply declared the police in danger of becoming “illegitimate,” others have seen the shootings only as individual actions of bad actors, and often provoked by the victims. One demonises an entire institution; the other demonises entire communities.
But reality is more complex. In the past 20 years, murder rates in America have dropped almost by half, with much credit due to the police. However, public faith in police remains far lower amongst minorities than the national average.
In many ways, what is happening in America is not an isolated event, but part of the increasing militarisation of the police worldwide. Whether its students in Mexico, miners in South Africa, women in India, or pro democracy protestors in Hong Kong, as people rise in confrontation with power structures everywhere, the police are often the first responders. Often, they are the unit through which the very relationship between citizen and State is negotiated.
In India, where I’m from, the media sees the police as part of the same national security apparatus that includes the army and the paramilitary. Reporters rely heavily on police sources for information, and are often unable to examine it critically. For a study on how the media covers India’s ongoing Maoist insurgency, I analyzed nearly 200 news reports from two leading newspapers. I found that 77% of all sources quoted were from the official government apparatus, and the highest majority – 44 percent of all sources – were police officials. This allowed the police to shape the media narrative and largely escape being held accountable.
Like America, there is little diversity within India’s police force – most hail from the dominant majority, and are often in conflict with Muslims, lower castes and other minorities. The National Campaign on Dalit (untouchables) Human Rights in India found in a three year study that in all cases where lower caste women approached the police to resolve local disputes, they were “either punished, or threatened to remain silent by means of physical assault and rape.”
In 1829, when Sir Robert Peel first proposed the idea of a professionally organized police, it was met with opposition in the British Parliament. As the British National Archives suggest, parliamentarians were suspicious of the idea of a large force, possibly armed, that could suppress protest and support military dictatorship. Much debate followed on how to set up a democratic and apolitical police force. Who would it be for? What powers would it have? Is the goal crime prevention, maintaining order, or both? Would the police be armed? How would it be regulated?
Even as Peel persuaded the British parliament, he laid down nine principles to ensure police accountability. Key among them was the idea of policing by consent, the notion that the “police are the public and that the public are the police.” In Peel’s vision, the success of the police force depended largely on how the public perceived them.
Now, two hundred years later those debates seem more relevant than ever, as a way back to the drawing board, to ask what really constitutes good policing in the modern world?