Policing, Citizenship, and Inequality in Comparative Perspective


This paper examines the complex relationship between policing, citizenship, and inequality in modern democratic societies through a comparative perspective. It analyzes how policing practices, often rooted in colonialism, have created systems of social control that perpetuate racial, ethnic, and class divides. The paper also explores the ways in which marginalized groups have resisted oppressive policing and asserted their rights as citizens. By studying policing in the United States, France, and Brazil, patterns emerge across different cultural contexts. The militarization of policing consistently leads to human rights violations and the disproportionate targeting of poor and minority populations. However, activism and legal challenges to these injustices have also pushed some policing institutions to reform. The paper concludes that reducing inequality requires transforming policing to align with egalitarian citizenship ideals rather than priorities of criminalization. This involves strengthening community oversight and ending the war on drugs in order to build trust, enhance public safety, and decentralize coercive state power.


Modern policing institutions originated in the early 19th century during a period of rapid urbanization, increasing socioeconomic inequality, and the expansion of European colonial projects (Neocleous, 2000). New police forces were tasked with maintaining order, enforcing laws, and protecting property, but they often used violent and discriminatory practices to control marginalized populations (Hadden, 2001). The legacies of colonial policing have persisted even after independence and the spread of democracy. Today, the relationships between policing, citizenship, and inequality remain complex and contested in many societies around the world.

This paper comparatively analyzes trends in policing across different cultural and political contexts. The focus is on how policing practices relate to citizenship ideals of rights and equality versus the perpetuation of racism, oppression, and social divisions. By studying policing in the United States, France, and Brazil, certain patterns emerge despite the countries’ distinct histories. Policing founded on principles of criminalization, militarization, and punitive enforcement consistently undermines human rights and targets minorities and the poor (Bowling et al., 2020; Müller, 2018). However, activism challenging police violence and discrimination has also influenced some reforms that better align policing with egalitarian citizenship. The paper concludes that reducing inequality requires transforming policing institutions to build public trust, enhance community safety, and decentralize state coercive power rather than enable systems of stratified citizenship.

Colonial Roots of Policing and Inequality

Modern police forces have their origins in European colonial projects that sought to control and exploit populations designated as inferior and ungovernable (Hadden, 2001). Colonial regimes deployed extensive surveillance, identification systems, and violent punishments against indigenous peoples and slaves in order to secure economic and political domination (Brewer, 1990). After abolishing slavery, former slave patrols and colonial constabularies transformed into police departments tasked with maintaining racial hierarchies and preventing rebellion from below (Hadden, 2001). These origins of policing as an institution of repression and social control cast a long shadow. Even after independence from colonial rule, postcolonial states often preserved similar structures of inequality through discriminatory and punitive policing targeted at poor, minority, and marginalized groups (Neocleous, 2000).

In France, the genesis of the National Police dates back to the 17th century monarchy’s search for greater domestic control and the rise of absolutism (Zancarini-Fournel, 2016). After the French Revolution, policing shifted towards maintaining public order in a society still starkly divided along class lines. Under Napoleon, the Gendarmerie became a key institution used for both external military campaigns and internal surveillance networks aimed at preventing dissent and working class resistance (Neocleous, 2000). The French colonies also became laboratories for coercive and racist methods of population control. For instance, the French Foreign Legion acted as a highly militarized police force in Algeria, utilizing identification systems, torture, executions, and forced population relocations during the Algerian War in the 1950s and 1960s (Evans, 2012).

In the United States, policing developed in the South during the antebellum era as an instrument to control slaves and enforce the brutally repressive system of racial capitalism centered on cotton production (Hadden, 2001). After the Civil War, revised “Black Codes” criminalized former slaves, enabling convict leasing systems and other forms of coerced labor in prisons that perpetuated servitude (Blackmon, 2008). Meanwhile, Northern police departments professionalized earlier than in the South, in part responding to increasing class conflict in rapidly industrializing cities. They attacked labor organizing and strikes while selectively enforcing laws against marginalized groups including immigrants, the poor, and sex workers (Hadden, 2001). These discriminatory practices became more systematized through early 20th century police reforms and professionalization movements.

In Brazil, the military police trace back to the early 19th century urban militia forces tasked with preventing slaves revolts and capturing runaways (Enstice, 2020). After abolition in 1888, police shifted to enforcing vagrancy laws and provided muscle for the ruling class while suppressing the labor movement and socialist organizing. During the Vargas dictatorship in the 1930s, the police adopted more bureaucratic professional forms even while continuing to control the urban poor and working-class through violence and intimidation. The leaders from that era also imported eugenic theories linking criminality to inferior races that influenced policing (Enstice, 2020). Across all these contexts, colonial-era functions of policing as repression to protect a racially and economically stratified social order persisted despite political reforms.

Rise of Militarized Policing in the 20th Century

In the 20th century, policing in many democracies has become increasingly militarized both in philosophy and through the adoption of military weapons, technologies, and tactics for domestic law enforcement (Kraska, 2007). Militarization accelerated due to the Wars on Drugs and Terror as well as the spread of globalized neoliberal capitalism with stark inequalities and expanded punitive states (Brown, 2019). Advanced technologies and weapons designed for foreign battlefields have circled back to local police forces contributing to more aggressive and violent practices targeted at disadvantaged populations (Meeks, 2006). Racial and class divides intensify as economically marginalized minority groups bear the brunt of intensified surveillance, raids, profiling, incarceration, and police brutality.

In the 1960s, the French government gave new counterinsurgency equipment, training, and powers to the highly-centralized CRS riot police to suppress a wave of anti-government activism and unrest in the Paris suburbs (Müller, 2018). The CRS deployed tear gas and brutally beat protesters from immigrant and working-class backgrounds. Militarized policing expanded in France during the later decades marked by high unemployment, inequality, and clashes with minority youth in urban peripheries (Müller, 2018). The CRS now vigorously enforce France’s expansive security and emergency laws that give police wide latitude to stop, frisk, and harass residents of immigrant-heavy neighborhoods and working-class public housing projects.

Brazil saw a sharp rise in police militarization and violence directed against the urban poor starting in the 1960s under the military dictatorship (Enstice, 2020). Counterinsurgency and national security ideologies shaped domestic policing in major cities as favela residents were treated like enemies of the state. Police utilized military-grade weapons and armored vehicles during violent and deadly invasions into precarious neighborhoods purportedly aimed at stopping crime and drug gangs. However, the raids often inflicted indiscriminate violence and left residents terrorized without reducing violent crime (Arias, 2017). The dictatorship also expanded a mass incarceration system that disproportionately locked up poor black Brazilians and linked policing to nationalistic ideologies of “law and order” (Enstice, 2020).

In the United States, the shift towards military-style policing has been driven by the racialized Wars on Drugs and Crime beginning in the 1970s and the Patriot Act after 9/11 (Camp & Heatherton, 2016). It intensified the criminalization of marginalized groups, while advanced surveillance technologies pioneered in foreign wars monitored activist movements like Black Lives Matter (Lebron, 2017). Billions of dollars of military equipment has flowed to small town and big city police departments contributing to an occupation-like approach (Balko, 2013). SWAT teams have proliferated conducting millions of annual raids and no-knock warrants disproportionately in nonwhite neighborhoods (American Civil Liberties Union, 2014). These dynamics reflect the historical continuities between techniques of colonial control and today’s militarized policing targeting the marginalized.

Discriminatory Policing Practices and Unequal Citizenship

Closely tied to the rise of militarized policing, discriminatory practices have endured as forms of racial and identity profiling, broken windows policing, and disparate treatment by police. These practices rank residents according to dangerousness, punished identities, and presumed criminality (Stuart, 2021). Racial minorities, migrants, the homeless, youth, and the socially marginalized face police harassment, brutality, and unjustified arrests that perpetuate their second-class citizenship status in practice if not in formal legal terms (Bowling et al., 2020). Punitive policing both relies on and reinforces public prejudices along with institutionalized racism.

In France, police utilize extensive stop and frisk powers facilitated by the 1955 State of Emergency Law that has been continuously renewed since the Algerian War (Amnesty International, 2017). French police carried out identity checks on ethnic minorities up to ten or twenty times more frequently than white citizens even though such stops rarely uncover criminality (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2009). The stops often involve harassment including racial slurs. Non-whites describe being constantly asked for papers and treated as immigrants rather than full French citizens regardless of actual citizenship status. Muslims have been brutally attacked by police in mosques and targeted under anti-terrorism laws that enable profiling (Nasr, 2006).

Broken windows and zero tolerance policing gained favor in Brazil, France, and the United States in the 1990s based on theories linking visible signs of disorder to more serious crime (Harcourt, 1998). However, in practice these approaches lead to over-policing of activities associated with poverty and homelessness like loitering, public drinking, or pan-handling. The working poor and racial minorities in dense neighborhoods face fines, arrests, and beatings for minor infractions destroying trust in police (Harcourt & Ludwig, 2006). Extensive stop and frisk programs similarly target marginalized young men of color and migrants based on appearance reinforcing their unequal social status and rights (Geller et. al, 2014).

Police killings of unarmed citizens represent the most dramatic manifestation of racism in policing. In the United States, officers disproportionately kill young black men (Ross, 2015). From 2014 to 2022, police killed over 5,000 civilians with Black Americans 2.5 times more likely than whites to be victims (Ritchie et al, 2022). Few officers are held accountable leading to national Black Lives Matter protests against these ingrained inequalities (Camp & Heatherton, 2016). In Brazil, police are responsible for over 6,000 killings annually or about 15% of all homicides nationwide in the late 2010s (Bueno & LIMA, 2019). The victims are overwhelmingly young, black, and poor males from favelas and urban peripheries. Widespread police violence reflects and reproduces Brazil’s severe racial and class inequities (Bueno & LIMA, 2019).

Legal Challenges to Discrimination and Police Violence

Policing practices that violate rights, entrench inequality, and perpetuate cultural prejudices have faced legal challenges and resistance from civil society. Campaigns have sought to roll back discriminatory laws, improve oversight and accountability, and reform policing doctrine away from militarism and punitiveness. Some countries have seen gradual reforms, though implementation often falls short and police unions frequently oppose change. Even partial reforms represent hard fought victories reflecting grassroots struggles for full and equal citizenship against state and societal systems of exclusion (Bowling et al., 2020).

In France, civil rights campaigns beginning in the 1980s targeted racial profiling and helped raise awareness about discriminatory identity checks (Jobard & Névanen, 2007). NGOs like Open Society Justice Initiative and Amnesty International published investigations documenting systematic racial discrimination and called for strengthening oversight over the powerful police institutions (Open Society Justice Initiative, 2009). Courts have increasingly faulted the state for abuses, like a 2016 Constitutional Court decision denouncing unlawful identity checks based on appearance (Amnesty International, 2017). However, follow through modifying practices has been minimal even after aws prohibiting some forms of profiling.

In Brazil, human rights groups, activists, and victims’ families have long called attention to police killings, profiling, and deadly force in favelas (Bueno & Lima, 2019). International bodies have denounced the Brazilian police’s human rights violations. While legally police are only allowed to use lethal force as a last resort when facing grave threat, this is interpreted very loosely (Cano & Ribeiro, 2016). Attempts at legislative reforms like limiting police raids have faced strong resistance from police unions, though implementing body cameras is gradually increasing (Young & Nunes, 2020). But demands by favela residents for non-corrupt and non-abusive community policing remain mostly unfulfilled.

Civil rights advocates in the United States have employed a multi-pronged strategy of mass protest, lawsuits, and community-based oversight boards to contest police racism and violence (Vitale, 2017). Key legal precedents like forcing LAPD reforms after Rodney King’s videotaped beating exposed systematic discrimination and abuse. Campaigns against illegal racial profiling and surveillance by the NYPD Muslim community also achieved reforms like disbanding the Demographics Unit. However, securing convictions against police who kill remains extremely rare under legal doctrines legitimizing force (Ross, 2015). The inspiring Black Lives Matter movement calls for much deeper transformations in policing and undoing systemic racism.

Conclusion: Policing Reform and Equal Citizenship

This comparative examination reveals clear patterns in how discriminatory and militarized policing has undermined egalitarian citizenship in diverse political and cultural contexts. While some legal restrictions and oversight mechanisms have gradually developed, transforming policing to enhance community trust and safety requires more fundamental reforms centered on human rights and racial and economic justice. Shifting away from criminalization towards investments in marginalized communities offers a path to escape persistent legacies of colonial control (Stuart, 2021).

Key reforms that would align policing with equal citizenship include strictly banning and robustly enforcing prohibitions on racial profiling as well as requiring independent and empowered civilian oversight bodies (Amnesty International, 2017; Vitale, 2017). Restricting military weapons and tactics for police combined with training officers in de-escalation and nonviolent resolution of community problems would also help (Balko, 2013). Alternatives like restorative justice should be available to divert vulnerable groups from cascading criminalization (Davis, 2011). And ending the war on drugs in favor of public health approaches remains vital for stopping mass incarceration and reducing incentives for aggressive policing (Drucker, 2011).

These recommendations challenge entrenched policies, practices, and ideologies centered on punishment and criminalization. However, examples like the modest drug decriminalization and increased social spending in Portugal demonstrate better results in improving community safety, health, and equality (Greenwald, 2009). Sustained civic activism and political reform efforts focused simultaneously on transforming policing practices, unwinding racial discrimination, and providing quality services and opportunities in marginalized communities could significantly advance equal citizenship and freedom from injustice. More just and effective policing based on shared human rights rather than colonial logics of repression offers hope for stronger democracies grounded in solidarity across racial and economic divides.


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SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a bachelor's degree in political science and international relations as well as a Master's degree in international security studies, alongside a passion for web development. During my studies, I gained a strong understanding of key political concepts, theories in international relations, security and strategic studies, as well as the tools and research methods used in these fields.

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