DOJ report on Albuquerque police brutality a halting step towards accountability

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Protest in Albuquerque against the March 16 police shooting of homeless man James Boyd

Following a wide-ranging investigation of the Albuquerque Police Department (APD), the U.S. Justice Department said last Thursday that the APD has for years engaged in a pattern of excessive force that violates the Constitution and federal law.

The investigation, launched in November 2012, examined whether APD engages in an unconstitutional pattern or practice of excessive force, including deadly force, specifically identifying three general patterns of police abuse:

  • APD officers too frequently use deadly force against people who pose a minimal threat and in situations where the conduct of the officers heightens the danger and contributes to the need to use force;
  • APD officers use less lethal force, including tasers, on people who are passively resisting, non-threatening, observably unable to comply with orders or pose only a minimal threat to the officers; and
  • Encounters between APD officers and persons with mental illness and in crisis too frequently result in a use of force or a higher level of force than necessary.

The DOJ’s findings come on the heels of the recent police murder of a homeless man that has sparked a wave of demonstrations in Albuquerque, New Mexico’s largest city.

APD officers gunned down 38-year-old James Boyd on March 16 in the Sandia foothills following a standoff and after he allegedly threatened officers with a small knife, authorities said. But a helmet-camera video showed Boyd agreeing to walk down the mountain with them, gathering his things and taking a step toward officers just before they fired.

“It’s a tremendous injustice,” said community leader Ralph Arellanes of the shooting. “This was something that caught the attention of the world.”

Indeed, the world has been taking notice, not just of this particular incident, but in general the ongoing epidemic of police violence and the criminalization of homeless people in the United States.

Just last month, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality, in particular against people of color and the homeless.

In a section called “Criminalization of homelessness,” the Human Rights Committee expressed concern about reports of “criminalization of people living on the street for everyday activities such as eating, sleeping, sitting in particular areas etc.”

The Committee noted that such criminalization raises concerns of discrimination and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment under articles 2, 7, 9, 17,and 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and urged the U.S. to “abolish criminalization of homelessness laws and policies at state and local levels.”

In another section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the Human Rights Committee found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces, including, for instance, in Chicago, and reports of excessive use of force by certain law enforcement officers including the deadly use of tasers, which have a disparate impact on African Americans.”

In order to bring its practices in line with international norms on law enforcement, the UN recommended that the U.S. government should:

(a) step up its efforts to prevent the excessive use of force by law enforcement officers by ensuring compliance with the 1990 UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers; (b) ensure that the new CBP directive on use of deadly force is applied and enforced in practice; and (c) improve reporting of excessive use of force violations and ensure that reported cases of excessive use of force are effectively investigated, alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions, that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available, and that victims or their families are provided with adequate compensation.

The Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers that the Human Rights Committee referenced contains a number of guidelines that the U.S. would do well to implement in the interest of avoiding the unnecessary killings of civilians by police. For example,

Law enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result.

5. Whenever the lawful use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall:

(a) Exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved;

(b) Minimize damage and injury, and respect and preserve human life;

(c) Ensure that assistance and medical aid are rendered to any injured or affected persons at the earliest possible moment;

(d) Ensure that relatives or close friends of the injured or affected person are notified at the earliest possible moment.

When tragedies do occur and police unnecessarily kill innocent people, the UN Basic Principles call for governments to “ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law.”

This is one area that is sorely lacking in the United States, with a general climate of impunity across the country for killer cops.

As a 2007 report prepared for the UN Human Rights Committee stated, the war on terror has “created a generalized climate of impunity for law enforcement officers, and contributed to the erosion of what few accountability mechanisms exist for civilian control over law enforcement agencies. As a result, police brutality and abuse persist unabated and undeterred across the country.”

“Systemic abuse of people of color by law enforcement officers has not only continued since 2001,” the report noted, “but has worsened in both practice and severity. According to a representative of the NAACP, ‘the degree to which police brutality occurs…is the worst I’ve seen in 50 years.’”

Even establishment publications such as the Wall Street Journal have noticed the troubling trend of rising police violence, dubbing the new breed of U.S. police officers “the warrior cop.” As a feature article in WSJ put it in August 2013,

Driven by martial rhetoric and the availability of military-style equipment—from bayonets and M-16 rifles to armored personnel carriers—American police forces have often adopted a mind-set previously reserved for the battlefield. The war on drugs and, more recently, post-9/11 antiterrorism efforts have created a new figure on the U.S. scene: the warrior cop—armed to the teeth, ready to deal harshly with targeted wrongdoers, and a growing threat to familiar American liberties.

In this context, while the new Justice Department report issued last week is certainly a welcome step towards some accountability, the fact is, much more is needed to bring U.S. police departments in line with international norms on law enforcement. A more comprehensive effort – including federal prosecutions of rogue cops – may be necessary if the United States is to bring itself into compliance with international policing norms.

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About The Compliance Campaign

Campaigning for a United States in compliance with its international obligations. Follow on Twitter here: https://twitter.com/compliancecamp Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/compliancecamp Comments, article submissions or news leads are welcome at compliancecampaign [at] gmail.com.

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