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Amnesty International Report on Use of Lethal Force by Police in the United States

Report from Amnesty International – June 2015

Hundreds of men and women are killed by police each and every year across the United States. No one knows exactly how many because the United States does not count how many lives are lost. The limited information available however suggests that African American men are disproportionately impacted by police use of lethal force. While the majority of the unarmed African Americans killed by police officers are men, many African American women have also lost their lives to police violence. Police officers are responsible for upholding the law, as well as respecting and protecting the lives of all members of society. Their jobs are difficult and often dangerous. However, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and countless others across the United States has highlighted a widespread pattern of racially discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers and an alarming use of lethal force nationwide.

Indeed, just 10 days after Michael Brown was fatally shot in Ferguson, Missouri, on August 9, 2014, St. Louis police officers shot and killed a young black man, Kajieme Powell, 25, who was reportedly holding a knife. Police claims that he was brandishing a knife were not borne out by the available video footage of the shooting. Some of the individuals killed by police in the United States include the following: Rekia Boyd, an unarmed 22 year old black woman was shot and killed by a Chicago police officer on March 21, 2012; Eric Garner, a 43 year old black man, died after being placed in a chokehold by New York Police Department officers after being approached by an officer who attempted to arrest him for selling loose, untaxed cigarettes on July 17, 2014; Ezell Ford, 25, an unarmed black man with a history of mental illness, was shot and killed by Los Angeles police officers on August 11 2014; Tamir Rice, a 12 year-old black boy, was shot and killed by officers in Cleveland, Ohio while playing in a park with a toy gun on November 22, 2014; Walter Scott, a 50 year old unarmed black man, was fatally shot in the back after a traffic stop for a broken light on his car in North Charleston, South Carolina on April 4, 2015; and Freddie Grey, a 25 year old black man, died from a spinal injury after being taken into police custody in Baltimore, Maryland on April 19, 2015. These are all cases that have received national media attention; however, there are many more including Hispanic and Indigenous individuals from communities across the country who have died at the hands of the police.

The use of lethal force by law enforcement officers raises serious human rights concerns, including in regard to the right to life, the right to security of the person, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to equal protection of the law. The United States has a legal obligation to respect, protect and fulfill these human rights and has ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which explicitly protects these rights.

One of a state’s most fundamental duties which police officers, as agents of the state, must comply with in carrying out their law enforcement duties, is to protect life. In pursuing ordinary law enforcement operations, using force that may cost the life of a person cannot be justified. International law only allows police officers to use lethal force as a last resort in order to protect themselves or others from death or serious injury. The United Nations (UN) Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or the defence of others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and that, in any event, “intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.” Furthermore, international law enforcement standards require that force of any kind may be used only when there are no other means available that are likely to achieve the legitimate objective. If the force is unavoidable it must be no more than is necessary and proportionate to achieve the objective, and law enforcement must use it in a manner designed to minimise damage or injury, must respect and preserve human life and ensure medical aid are provided as soon as possible to those injured or affected[…]

KEY FINDINGS & RECOMMENDATIONS

The United States has failed to track how many people are killed by law enforcement officers. No one knows exactly how many people are killed each year but estimates range from 400 to over 1,000.

  • African Americans are disproportionately impacted by police killings, according to the limited data avail- able. While blacks represent 13.2 per cent of the US population, they represent 27.6 per cent of the total deaths at the hands of police (6,338) included in the data on violent deaths recorded by the Center for Disease Control between 1999 and 2013.
  • The United States has failed to respect and protect the right to life by failing to ensure that domestic legislation meets international human rights law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.
  • All 50 states and Washington, D.C. fail to comply with international law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.
  • Nine states and Washington, D.C. have no laws on use of lethal force by law enforcement officers: Maryland; Massachusetts; Michigan; Ohio; South Carolina; Virginia; West Virginia; Wisconsin, Wyoming; and the District of Columbia.
  • Thirteen states have laws that do not comply even with the lower standards set by US constitution- al law on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers12 : Alabama; California; Delaware; Florida; Mississippi; Missouri; Montana; New Jersey; New York; Oregon; Rhode Island; South Dakota; and Vermont.
  • None of the state statutes require that the use of lethal force may only be used as a last resort with non-violent and less harmful means to be tried first.
  • No state limits the use of lethal force to only those situations where there is an imminent threat to life or serious injury to the officer or to others.
  • Nine states allow for the use of lethal force to be used to suppress a riot: Arizona; Delaware; Idaho; Mississippi; Nebraska; Pennsylvania; South Dakota; Vermont and Washington.
  • Twenty two states allow for law enforcement officers to kill someone trying to escape from a prison or jail: Alabama; Colorado; Delaware; Georgia; Hawaii; Idaho; Indiana; Kentucky; Maine; Mississippi; Montana; Nebraska; New Hampshire; New Jersey; New Mexico; New York; North Carolina; North Dakota; Oklahoma; Pennsylvania; South Dakota and Washington.13
  • Only eight states require that a warning be given (where feasible) before lethal force is used, how- ever no state meets the requirement for a warning under international standards: Connecticut; Florida, Indiana; Nevada; New Mexico; Tennessee; Utah and Washington.
  • Only three states provide that officers should create no “substantial risk” to bystanders when using lethal force: Delaware; Hawaii and New Jersey.
  • Twenty states allow for private citizens (non-state actors) to use lethal force if they carry out law enforcement activities, for example assisting an officer in making an arrest: Alabama; Arizona; California; Colorado; Connecticut; Indiana; Kansas; Kentucky; Louisiana; Maine; Mississippi; Nebraska; New Hamp- shire; New Jersey; New York; North Dakota; Pennsylvania; South Dakota; Texas and Washington.14
  • Only two states provide by statute for training on the use of lethal force: Georgia and Tennessee.15
  • None of the states’ “use of lethal force” statutes include accountability mechanisms, including for example the requirement of obligatory reporting for the use of force and firearms by law enforcement offi- cers.

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

  • All state legislatures should introduce or amend statutes that authorize the use of lethal force to ensure that they are in line with international standards by limiting the use of lethal force by law enforcement to those instances in which it is necessary to protect against the threat of death or serious injury. The statutes should be brought into compliance with the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
  • The president and Department of Justice (DOJ) should support the creation of a national commission (National Crime and Justice Task Force) to examine and produce recommendations on policing issues, including a nationwide review of police use of lethal force laws, policies, training and practices, which is ur- gently needed, as well as a thorough review and reform of oversight and accountability mechanisms. These laws, policies and practices must be brought in line with international standards.
  • The Department of Justice must ensure the collection and publication of nationwide statistics on police shootings in accordance with the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act (1994) and the Death in Cus- tody Act (2014). The data collected should be disaggregated on the basis of race, gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and indigenous status.
  • Congress should take legislative action to ensure that all federal, state and local law enforcement officials restrict their use of lethal force in compliance with international law and standards. This should include enacting legislation requiring all law enforcement agencies to review and amend their policies by limiting the use of lethal force to those instances in which it is necessary to protect against the threat of death or serious injury. Congress should also pass the Police Reporting Information, Data, and Evidence Act and the End Racial Profiling Act.[continue reading]

Copyright 2015 Amnesty International. Reprinted with permission on a noncommercial license. To read the entire report, please click here.

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