Excessive force use by American police
Police violence is a leading cause of death for young men in the United States. Social scientists and public health scholars now widely acknowledge that police contact is a key vector of health inequality and is an important cause of early mortality for people of colour. Police in the United States kill far more people than do police in other developed countries.
The nationwide anti-police brutality protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd in the US have been marked by widespread incidents of police violence, including punching, kicking, gassing, pepper-spraying and driving vehicles at often peaceful protesters in states across the country. The actions have left thousands of protesters in jail and injured many others, leaving some with life-threatening injuries.
On Friday, twenty-three United Nations human rights experts released a joint statement calling on the United States to adopt reforms on police violence and address systemic racism and racial discrimination.
“We have repeatedly raised our concerns about the excessive force used by American police in the context of peaceful demonstrations, and the use of lethal force against individuals who did not present a threat to life at the time of the police intervention,” said the statement. “In this time of political change, the United States must initiate far-reaching reforms to address police brutality and systemic racism.”
The experts include Agnes Callamard, special rapporteur on extrajudicial and arbitrary executions; Irene Khan, special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression; Marcos Orellana, special rapporteur on toxics and human rights; Nils Melzer, special rapporteur on torture and other cruel punishment as well as other experts.
African American communities have long decried police brutality and racial profiling. The issue gained global attention last year when protests broke out across the US, some of them violent, following the death of George Floyd, the unarmed African American man whose death while in police custody was captured on video.
In June, the UN Human Rights Council debated the killing of George Floyd and violence against peaceful protesters in the US.
The rights experts welcomed a January report from the Office of the City Controller in Philadelphia, which found authorities failed to sufficiently plan for the demonstrations and that excessive force had been used. It also found inconsistencies in how officers policed massive crowds protesting police brutality and other crowds gathered to show support for the police.
They urged other municipalities to assess their response and allegations of systemic racism. “In Philadelphia, as in other parts of the country where Black Lives Matter protests took place, law enforcement interventions were not limited to areas where lootings and vandalism had allegedly occurred”, they said. “Police officers fired tear gas, rubber bullets and used pepper spray from close range against protesters, residents and bystanders indiscriminately. Tear gas canisters even landed in home yards hurting children.”
The Philadelphia report found that many violations stemmed from the failure of leadership at the highest levels in key city departments and agencies.
“We agree forcefully with the necessity for greater accountability," said the U.N. statement. "The authorities at all levels must ensure that there is no impunity for any excessive use of force by law enforcement officials."
The experts were also concerned that law enforcement officers in the US are allowed to use lethal force whenever it is deemed “reasonable”. They called for relevant legal and policy frameworks to be revised urgently to reflect established international human rights standards.
Against ‘militarisation’ of policing
Noting the increased “militarisation” of policing, the experts said the use of military equipment by law enforcement cannot be justified, adding that studies show military gear and armored vehicles do not reduce crime or increase officers’ safety. “On the contrary, when such equipment is used, officers are more likely to display violent behavior,” they said.
With misdemeanours accounting for some 80 per cent arrests in the US, the rights experts said reducing “unnecessary interactions” between the police and community members would lead to decreased violence and deaths.
“We have witnessed many police killings that have resulted from police action related to petty offences. Instead, non-serious offenses, including minor traffic violations, should be addressed through mechanisms outside the criminal legal system”, they recommended.
“Policing reforms must adopt genuine and substantive measures to dismantle systemic racism in policing, including against racial, ethnic and other minorities, by divestment from current policing budgets and reinvestment in alternative social and economic resources that are vital for the safety of these communities”, they stated.