Not a single police department in 20 largest US cities compliant with international rights laws, report finds

University of Chicago study warns law enforcement authorised to commit ‘state-sanctioned violence’ without significant reform

Alex Woodward
New York
Monday 22 June 2020 22:58 BST
Trump says chokeholds will be banned unless officers feel their lives are at risk

Use-of-force policies in police departments in 20 of the largest cities in the US failed to meet even ”minimum standards” under international human rights guidelines, according to a report from the University of Chicago Law School.

The report from the law school’s International Human Rights Clinic, highlights American policing’s difficulty balancing power with maintaining basic human rights, and the chasm between law enforcement in the US and elsewhere.

Officers are too broadly given discretion for lethal force, effectively authorising “state-sanctioned violence” and “the exercise of arbitrary brute force, a common tool of tyrannical and despotic governments,” the report says.

The report’s release following widespread protests and demands for dramatic police reform in the wake of police killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Rayshared Brooks and other black Americans.

Researchers graded 20 police departments against international human rights standards, including the Universal Declaration on Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, “the two fundamental international instruments protecting human rights, establish the rights to life, equality, liberty and security of person, freedom from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment and freedom from discrimination”, the report says.

Law enforcement relies on the UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials, the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, and a Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions on protection of the right to life during law enforcement, according to the report.

But in a review of department policies from 20 American cities, the university survey found that none has a use-of-force policy that meets those standards.

“Police departments grant their officers deadly discretion, allowing the use of lethal force to capture an escaping suspect or to prevent the commission of a felony, regardless of whether the suspect poses a threat of any kind,” clinic director Claudia Flores told the university. “Clear constraints on police discretion are critical to protecting the human rights of all people — especially members of marginalized or disempowered communities.”

Accountability measures also are largely absent, the report discovered.

All 20 departments in the report had internal systems to report lethal force, but only the Los Angeles and Chicago police departments also required external investigations.

Those two cities rank highest among the list of international compliance measures. At the bottom is Indianapolis, which allows police to use deadly force in the event of a felony “without limiting or specifying the relevant felonies or the kind of force or threat of force involved in the commission of the felony,” the report says.

Body-mounted camera footage and viral witness images showing police killing people in custody “provide grim illustrations of the power law enforcement officers have over the people they are sworn to serve and protect and the deadly consequences when they abuse that power”, she said. “Police lethal use-of-force policies provide the primary source of guidance and accountability for officer discretion to use force in any given situation — and police in this country have a great deal of discretion.”

The report recommends federal, state and local lawmakers, as well as the departments themselves, adopt immediate and concrete measures to force compliance with international law.

Researchers recommend that the Department of Justice collect, store, analyse and make public all data on police actions and eliminate qualified immunity, which shields law enforcement from constitutional violations, including the use of lethal force.

Law enforcement also should be required to de-escalate scenes and eliminate all “techniques, tactics and technologies that pose a risk of death or serious bodily harm, such as chokeholds, neck restraints, tear gas and rubber bullets,” the report says.

It also suggests departments reevaluate whether armed officers are necessary in public events.

“True police reform must start in the policies and practices of police departments themselves,” report co-author Brian Citro told the university. ”In light of the recent police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Manuel Ellis and others, the failure of police policies to sufficiently constrain the use of lethal force and ensure real accountability should alarm every one of us.”

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