There is a widespread and persistent problem of police brutality across the United States. Thousands of individual complaints about police abuse are reported each year and local authorities pay out millions of dollars to victims in damages after lawsuits. Police officers have beaten and shot unresisting suspects; they have misused batons, chemical sprays, and electro-shock weapons; they have injured or killed people by placing them in dangerous restraint holds. This is the first paragraph of an unprecedented and historic report, USA: Rights for All, issued by Amnesty International (AI) on October 6, 1998.
Simultaneously, the organization announced the theme of its U. S. education campaign: “Human rights aren’t just a foreign affair. ” For many–myself included–this is a long-awaited and irrefutable confirmation of the alarming state of human rights in America. Indeed, this report leaves no doubt whatsoever that American law enforcement agencies–including the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the prison system–must be immediately reined in, fundamentally reformed, and held accountable to the citizens who literally entrust them with their lives.
AI’s report confirms that the overwhelming majority of victims of law enforcement abuses are members of racial and ethnic minorities, while most police departments remain predominantly white. Relations between the police and members of minority communities–especially young black and Latino males in inner-city areas–are often tense, and racial bias is reported or a factor in many instances.
The report continues: Unarmed suspects have been shot while fleeing from minor crime scenes; mentally ill or disturbed people have been subjected to excessive force; police have shot distraught people armed with weapons such as knives or ticks, in circumstances suggesting that they could have been subdued without lethal force; victims have been shot many times, sometimes after they had already been apprehended or disabled. AI issues a strong warning: Police officers are responsible for upholding the law and protecting the rights of all members of society. Their job is often difficult and sometimes dangerous. Experience from around the world shows that constant vigilance is required to ensure the highest standards of conduct–standards necessary to maintain public confidence and meet national and international requirements….
Police forces throughout the U. S. must be made more accountable for their actions by the establishment of effective monitoring mechanisms. National, state, and local police authorities should ensure that police brutality and excessive force are not tolerated. Despite reform programs in several major U. S. police departments, the report documents that authorities still fail to deal effectively with police officers who have committed abuses. The disciplinary sanctions imposed on officers found guilty of brutality are frequently inadequate, and officers are rarely prosecuted for using excessive force.
The “code of silence” still commands widespread loyalty, contributing to a climate of impunity. The report reminds us that standards of conduct for law enforcement officials are set out under the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms. These require, among other things, that law enforcement officers use force only as a last resort and that the amount of force be proportionate to the threat encountered and designed to minimize damage and injury.
Predictably, most complaints of police brutality involve excessive physical force by patrol officers during the course of arrests, searches, traffic stops, the issuing of warrants, and street incidents. Common forms of ill-treatment are repeated kicks, punches, or blows with batons or other weapons–sometimes after a suspect has already been restrained or rendered helpless. There are also complaints involving various types of restraint holds, pepper spray, electro-shock weapons, and firearms.
AI’s investigation confirms–as many civil libertarians already knew–that there are no accurate national data on the number of people fatally shot or injured by police officers–data which are essential for meaningful peacemaking. AI states: Most law enforcement agencies maintain that abuses, when they occur, are isolated incidents. However, in the past eight years, independent inquiries have uncovered systematic abuses in some of the country’s largest police departments, revealing a serious nationwide problem…. The emphasis on the “war on crime” in recent years has reportedly contributed to more ggressive policing in many areas.
AI also condemns “endemic physical and sexual violence against prisoners” and calls for abolition of the death penalty, citing the United States for having the largest known death-row population on Earth: more than 3,300 inmates. Physical abuse and harassment of gay men and lesbians by police officers is also endemic in many areas. In addition, gay and lesbian victims of crime (including victims of homophobic attacks) frequently find their complaints to the police are not treated seriously and, in some instances, are met with verbal or physical abuse.
There have been long-standing complaints of misconduct by INS officers in the U. S. -Mexico border region. Reported abuses include people being kicked, punched, and hit with batons; sexual abuse; and denial of food, water, and bedding to people held in Border Patrol stations. Victims include men, women, and children. It is particularly significant that AI’s report specifically references two of the worst instances of abuse by federal law enforcement in the past forty years: FBI agents have also used unnecessary levels of force. In 1995 the government paid $3. 1 million in a wrongful death claim to the family of a hite separatist whose wife and son were shot dead by FBI sharpshooters during a siege in Idaho in 1992.
A Justice Department inquiry found that senior officials in charge of the siege had violated federal policies on the use of deadly force. While several senior officials were demoted, no officers were prosecuted. And during a 51-day stand-off with members of an armed religious sect–the Branch Davidians–in Waco, Texas, in 1993, federal agents pumped CS gas into a compound known to hold children as well as adults for three and a half hours. The siege ended when fire engulfed the compound, killing over 70 men, women, and children.
The report confirms that victims of law enforcement abuse include not only criminal suspects but also bystanders and people who question police actions or are involved in minor disputes or confrontations. Abuses in response to challenges to police authority (widely known as “contempt of cop”) have been widely documented. Also confirmed is the fact that suspects have been tortured or ill-treated inside police stations by methods such as electroshock and having plastic bags placed over their heads. There have also been numerous deaths in police custody following restraint procedures known to be dangerous.
Suspects have died after being placed facedown in restraints, usually while “hog-tied” or after pressure has been applied to the neck or chest. The police also have a variety of so-called less-than-lethal weapons at their disposal, including chemical sprays, electroshock weapons, and batons. At least 3,000 U. S. police departments authorize the use of oleoresin capsicum (OC) spray. An inflammatory agent derived from cayenne peppers, OC spray inflames the mucous membranes, causing closing of the eyes, coughing, gagging, shortness of breath, and an acute burning sensation on the skin and inside the nose and mouth.
Since the early 1990s, more than sixty people in the United States are reported to have died in police custody after being exposed to OC spray. Patrol officers in some police departments are authorized to use stun guns or tasers. The stun gun is a hand-held device with two metal prongs that emit an electric shock. The taser is a hand-held device that shoots two barbed hooks into the subject’s clothing from a distance; the current is transmitted through wires. In both cases, a high-voltage jolt, typically 50,000 volts, incapacitates the suspect. There have been several reported deaths following the use of such weapons.
The problems are not confined to inner cities. AI cites reports from human rights groups documenting long-standing brutality by law enforcement agents toward people of Latin American origin in states with large immigrant populations, such as California and Texas. There have also been complaints of brutality and discriminatory treatment of Native Americans, both in urban areas and on reservations. The report refers to an agreement reached with the Justice Department in April 1997 to improve procedures in the Pittsburgh Police Department, which AI considers a model program.
The agreement includes proposals for a computerized record of each officer’s disciplinary training and complaints history (including unsustained complaints and data on civil lawsuits), as well as data on arrests, traffic stops, and use-of-force incidents. The agreement provides for regular independent audits and reviews of the data for potential racial bias or other patterns of concern and establishment of independent oversight of the complaints process in all U. S. police departments.