Police Brutality

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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 sticks, 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...
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