U.S. police display total disregard for international norms on law enforcement
Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association.
- Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
The right of peaceful assembly shall be recognized. No restrictions may be placed on the exercise of this right other than those imposed in conformity with the law and which are necessary in a democratic society in the interests of national security or public safety, public order (ordre public), the protection of public health or morals or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others.
- Article 21 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
In the performance of their duty, law enforcement officials shall respect and protect human dignity and maintain and uphold the human rights of all persons.
Law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.
- Articles 2 and 3 of the International Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials
In response to protests in Ferguson, Mo., over the police murder of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18-year-old shot by Officer Darren Wilson on Aug. 9, police have employed highly threatening and repressive measures, including pointing military assault rifles at peaceful protesters, deploying armored vehicles in the streets, and targeting journalists and African Americans for arrest.
These measures, human rights observers on the ground point out, infringe on basic fundamental rights to peaceful assembly and expression. Amnesty International, which has a team of observers in Ferguson, “remains deeply concerned about government infringement on the community’s right to peacefully protest the killing by police of Michael Brown,” according to an Aug. 19 blog post, which contains details on how Ferguson police have engaged in arbitrary arrests and acts of violent repression in recent days.
Amnesty reiterated its calls for a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation into the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, as well as independent investigations into any human rights abuses in connection with the policing of protests. Further, the group has urged a thorough review of all trainings, policies and procedures with regards to the use of force and the policing of protests.
A statement issued by Human Rights Watch on Aug. 20 noted that although some scattered looting has been reported in the two weeks of demonstrations in Ferguson, most observers have described the protests as overwhelmingly peaceful. Nevertheless, the police have used “unnecessary or excessive force – including firing teargas and rubber bullets into crowds, and arbitrarily detained journalists covering the events,” according to HRW.
In the statement, HRW urged U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to press state and local officials in Missouri to reform police practices to improve respect for basic rights. “Holder should also support federal reforms that could help address concerns about policing and racial discrimination raised during the Ferguson protests over the last 10 days,” HRW noted.
“A lot of the poor policing we’re seeing in Ferguson may be going on elsewhere in the United States,” said Alba Morales of Human Rights Watch, who has been monitoring the situation in Ferguson. “Holder should press state and local officials to review their regulations and policies on policing, but he should also look at ways the federal government may be contributing to the problems there.”
Indeed, the issue of the federal government’s responsibility for ensuring a minimum national standard in policing is also one that the United Nations has raised directly with the U.S. government, concerns that have so far apparently fallen on deaf ears.
Earlier this year, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report addressing serious human rights abuses in the United States, including the nationwide problem of police brutality. In a section of the report on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the UN found that across the country, there is an unacceptably “high number of fatal shootings by certain police forces … 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 “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” and “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. must implement in order to meet its international obligations. 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;
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.”
Demonstrating the general ignorance (or indifference) of these principles within United States law enforcement agencies, Sunil Dutta of the Los Angeles Police Department recently provided some stunningly frank “practical” advice to civilians on how to avoid being brutalized or killed by cops.
In the context of the ongoing protests in Ferguson, Dutta wrote in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, “If you don’t want to get shot, tased, pepper-sprayed, struck with a baton or thrown to the ground, just do what I tell you. Don’t argue with me, don’t call me names, don’t tell me that I can’t stop you, don’t say I’m a racist pig, don’t threaten that you’ll sue me and take away my badge.”
Acknowledging that police “field stops” can sometimes amount to unlawful and unconstitutional harassment, Dutta nevertheless advised civilians to never question the police about why they are being hassled, and above all, never contest cops’ authority in any way. “I know it is scary for people to be stopped by cops,” he wrote. “I also understand the anger and frustration if people believe they have been stopped unjustly or without a reason,” adding that he is well aware that “corrupt and bully cops exist.”
However, “if you believe (or know) that the cop stopping you is violating your rights or is acting like a bully, I guarantee that the situation will not become easier if you show your anger and resentment,” he said. Instead of challenging the cop on the scene Dutta advises that order to avoid being killed you should “Save your anger for later, and channel it appropriately. Do what the officer tells you to and it will end safely for both of you.”
By placing the onus of avoiding being shot on the civilian rather than the police officer, Dutta is demonstrating the very problem with law enforcement in the United States. The mentality that he reveals among American police officers is this: when civilians get shot, it is their fault for mouthing off or being insufficiently deferential to the police’s authority. However, as made clear by the UN’s Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers, it is up to cops to always “apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms.”
Police officers “may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result,” not because they get annoyed with civilians who question their authority.
This basic ignorance on the part of police officers is why it may be necessary for the federal government to step in to make sure that there is some sort of national standard for policing across the country. But instead, of course, the federal government is arming police departments to the teeth with military combat gear.
In other words, federal government so far has demonstrated itself to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution, so it may be naïve to think that it has any interest in dealing with this issue.