Ferguson report recalls U.S. obligations on policing and combating racial discrimination
The U.S. Department of Justice’s report released this week on the racist, unconstitutional and abusive law enforcement practices of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department offers a timely reminder of the importance of the United States taking steps to comply with international obligations as laid out in the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officers and other international agreements to which the U.S. has subscribed.
Among the DoJ’s key findings on the practices of the Ferguson police include an over-reliance on fines and fees for revenue, which can be financially punishing for the city’s many poor residents and often leads to unconstitutional harassment, as well as a disproportionate targeting of African Americans. Accounting for 67 percent of the population in Ferguson, the Justice Department found that black people comprise 85 percent of vehicle stops, 90 percent of citations, and 93 percent of arrests.
Other DoJ findings include a pattern of arresting people for exercising their First Amendment rights, deploying violent force against the mentally impaired and using canines to bite nonviolent civilians. Ferguson police were also found to engage in a pattern of racism as routinely expressed in emails and other internal communications. An email written shortly after Barack Obama’s 2008 election, for example, said that he would not last long in the Oval Office because “what black man holds a steady job for four years,” while another email depicted the president as a chimpanzee.
“It’s really a devastating report, because they’ve got interviews and quotes to back it up” said Samuel Walker, an expert on police accountability and professor emeritus at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. Speaking of the racist emails uncovered by the Justice Department, Walker said, “They’re truly offensive. Again, this is use of city computers, and nobody says, ‘Hey, stop this.’”
The DoJ’s report not only described the failures of the Ferguson police department, but also offered a reminder of the general failures of the United States to live up to its international obligations on policing and racial discrimination. Ultimately, it is up to the federal government to ensure that its policies are in compliance with international norms, as the U.S. was reminded last summer following the review of the United States by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), a body of independent experts that monitors implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination by its State parties.
The U.S. was told in particular that it must take a number of concrete steps to bring its policies in line with the treaty. The CERD’s “concluding observations” issued in August 2014 included the following remarks:
The Committee underlines the responsibility of the federal state for the implementation of the Convention, and calls upon the State party to take concrete steps to: (a) Prohibit racial discrimination in all its forms in federal and state legislation, including indirect discrimination, covering all fields of law and public life, in accordance with article 1, paragraph 1 of the Convention; and (b) Consider withdrawing or narrowing its reservation to article 2 of the Convention, and broaden the protection afforded by law against all discriminatory acts perpetrated by private individuals, groups or organizations; and (c) Improve the system of monitoring and response by federal bodies to prevent and challenge situations of racial discrimination.
The CERD also noted the lack of a national human rights institution in the United States:
While taking note of the creation of the Equality Working Group, the Committee reiterates its concern at the lack of an institutionalized coordinating mechanism with capacities to ensure the effective implementation of the Convention at the federal, state and local levels (CERD/C/USA/CO/6, para.13). Noting the role that an independent national human rights institution can play in this regard, the Committee expresses regret at the lack of progress in establishing a national human rights institution as recommended in its previous concluding observations (CERD/C/USA/CO/6, para.12) (art. 2). The Committee recommends that the State party create a permanent and effective coordinating mechanism, such as a national human rights institution established in accordance with the principles relating to the status of national institutions (the “Paris Principles”, General Assembly resolution 48/134, Annex), to ensure the effective implementation of the Convention throughout the State party and territories under its effective control; monitor compliance of domestic laws and policies with the provisions of the Convention; and systematically carry out anti-discrimination training and awareness-raising activities at the federal, state and local levels.
And took the U.S. to task for its failure to effectively address the problem of racial profiling in law enforcement:
While welcoming the acknowledgement made by the State party that racial or ethnic profiling is not effective law enforcement practice and is inconsistent with its commitment to fairness in the justice system, the Committee remains concerned at the practice of racial profiling of racial or ethnic minorities by law enforcement officials, including the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Transportation Security Administration, border enforcement officials, and local police (arts.2, 4(c) and 5(b)).
Recalling its general recommendation No. 31 (2001) on the prevention of racial discrimination in the administration and functioning of the criminal justice system, the Committee urges the State party to intensify efforts to effectively combat and end the practice of racial profiling by federal, state and local law enforcement officials
Earlier in 2014, the United Nations Human Rights Committee issued a scathing report documenting serious human rights abuses in the United States, with a particular focus on police violence.
In a section on “Excessive use of force by law enforcement officials,” the Human Rights Committee found that across the United States, 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.
- 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.”
These are all areas in which the United States is falling woefully short of international standards, as described this week in detail in the DoJ’s report on Ferguson. But while the Ferguson police have been singled out for their particularly egregious behavior, it is important to keep in mind that many of these nationwide problems, as explained in an LA Times report on Thursday:
The Justice Department report released this week found many of the same problems already identified in more than two dozen police departments since 1997. The report, however, appears to find Ferguson police responsible for a much broader range of violations than many of the others.
Other federal reviews have focused on racial discrimination, as in East Haven, or excessive use of force, as in Seattle, both in 2011. The report on Ferguson includes those allegations and more, notably the accusation that police seemed as focused on generating revenue as fighting crime, and that they did this by citing African Americans for often questionable violations.
Marc Morial, head of the Urban League, said: “What’s shocking is that this report is taking place in 2015. This sounds like 1955.”