The murder of George Floyd by a police officer and the weeks that have followed make clear what many already knew — Black and brown men and women in the United States are subject to state-sanctioned violence and systemic racism with impunity. The killing of Rayshard Brooks by police in Atlanta, while he was running away with an officer’s Taser, demonstrates that these killings are facilitated by current laws and policies that legitimate disproportionate and unnecessary uses of deadly force. The policing reform fight before Congress, and countless other reforms undertaken by state legislatures and municipalities across the country present a unique opportunity to change our broken legal system.
The United States is not alone in the challenge to protect the rights to life, security, and equal treatment in the context of law enforcement. The international community, through the United Nations, has long debated this issue. Over time, our global community, including the U.S., developed a set of principles and standards on policing to make concrete the protections provided to all in international human rights law. These standards — often referred to as legality, necessity, proportionality and accountability — require, in short, that police use of force be grounded in law; that it be necessary and proportional to the danger presented; and that robust systems of accountability are in place for police abuse of power.
The United States, however, is alone among its peers in confronting this challenge by granting its officers wide and unchecked discretion to use lethal force. Most European countries have largely conformed their laws and policies to international standards, permitting deadly force only when “absolutely necessary.” In the United States, the police may use deadly force based simply on a “reasonable belief” that it was justified. This standard provides enormous discretion to each officer to decide whether lethal force is appropriate. To make matters worse, we do not collect and make available national data for when police use lethal force, making it impossible to systematically assess how this discretion is abused.
We, along with students at the University of Chicago Law School, evaluated the 2018 use of force policies of the police departments in the 20 largest cities in the United States based on international human rights law and standards. Our findings are published in a report released earlier this month— Deadly Discretion: The Failure of Police Use of Force Policies to Meet Fundamental International Human Rights Law and Standards. What we found should alarm each and every one of us: not one of the policies in America’s largest cities met human rights standards.
Read more at International Human Rights Clinic Blog