All 50 US states fail to meet global police use of force standards, report finds
Amnesty International report describes ‘shocking lack of fundamental
respect for the sanctity of human life’ as nine states have no laws to
deal with police force
|Police response to protests across the country in the wake of several high-profile police shootings point to a need for better use of standards, says Amnesty. Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images|
The stinging review comes amid a national debate over police violence and widespread protest following the high-profile deaths of 18-year-old Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri; 43-year-old Eric Garner in New York; 50-year-old Walter Scott in South Carolina; and 25-year-old Freddie Gray in Baltimore – all unarmed black men killed by police within the past 11 months.
Amnesty USA executive director Steven Hawkins told the Guardian the findings represented a “shocking lack of fundamental respect for the sanctity of human life”.
“While law enforcement in the United States is given the authority to use lethal force, there is no equal obligation to respect and preserve human life. It’s shocking that while we give law enforcement this extraordinary power, so many states either have no regulation on their books or nothing that complies with international standards,” Hawkins said.
The analysis, which Hawkins said he believed was the first of its kind, compared state statutes on law enforcement’s use of lethal force with international legislation, including the enshrinement of the right to life, as well as United Nations principles limiting lethal use of force to “unavoidable” instances “in order to protect life” after “less extreme means” have failed. Further UN guidelines state that officers should attempt to identify themselves and give warning of intent to use lethal force.
Amnesty found that in all 50 states and Washington DC, written statutes were too broad to fit these international standards, concluding: “None of the laws establish the requirement that lethal force may only be used as a last resort with non-violent means and less harmful means to be tried first. The vast majority of laws do not require officers to give a warning of their intent to use firearms.”
The report arrived just weeks after the recommendations of Barack Obama’s police taskforce were made public and his executive actions on police reform criticized for not going far enough to curtail police violence. The presidential commission stated that “not only should there be policies for deadly and non-deadly uses of force”, but that a “clearly stated ‘sanctity of life’ philosophy must also be in the forefront of every officer’s mind.”
The Amnesty review found that only eight states require a verbal warning to be given before an officer engages in lethal force. In nine states, law enforcement officers are legally allowed to use lethal force during riot. In Pennsylvania, for instance, the use of force statute mandates that deadly force is justifiable if it is “necessary to suppress a riot or mutiny after the rioters or mutineers have been ordered to disperse”.
Further, Amnesty found that in 20 states it is legally permissible for law enforcement officers to employ lethal force against an individual attempting to escape prison or jail, even if they pose no threat. In Mississippi, for instance, law declares “the killing of a human being ... justifiable ... [w]hen necessarily committed by public officers, or those acting by their command in their aid and assistance, in retaking any felon who has been rescued or has escaped”.
Amnesty’s report also charges that the laws on lethal force in 13 states do not even meet the less stringent constitutional standard set by the 1985 US supreme court case Tennessee v Garner. The case was centered on the death of an unarmed black 15-year-old, Edward Garner, a suspect in a home burglary. He was shot in the back of the head as he fled by officers acting under a Tennessee state statute which permitted “use all the necessary means” to make an arrest of a fleeing subject.
The 6-3 majority decision declared that police may not use deadly force to prevent a suspect from escaping unless “the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a significant threat of death or serious physical injury to the officer or others”.
The states whose laws do not meet this constitutional standard, according to Amnesty, tend to include permissive or vague language around the use of force. North Dakota’s statute, for example, permits deadly force against “an individual who has committed or attempted to commit a felony involving violence”, without defining the level of violence that might warrant deadly force.
Amnesty identifies nine states – Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming – alongside Washington DC where no law enforcement officer lethal force statues exist.
“Those states can of course argue that they follow common law or supreme court standards, but is that good enough?” Hawkins said. “Certainly we would expect that international human rights standards are what should govern and our fear is that, unless these are clearly quantified, a citizen in any state can’t look at what the law is. That’s critically important to ensuring accountability.”
Amnesty’s report contends that the international standards laid out in the UN basic principles dictate all fatal incidents involving law enforcement officials should be mandatorily reported and well as impartially investigated.
The federal government does not collect a comprehensive record of people killed by police forces throughout the US. Instead, the FBI runs a voluntary program where law enforcement can choose to submit a number of “justifiable homicides” each year.
A Guardian investigation into deaths at the hands of law enforcement officers in the US has so far documented 515 people killed by police this year. The statistics reveal that black people are more than twice as likely as white people to be unarmed during fatal encounters with police, and show that black Americans are killed by police at more than twice the rate as white Americans.
The introduction of mandatory reporting to federal government for all deaths at the hands of law enforcement is a central recommendation of the Amnesty report.
The report also suggests taking action at all levels of government, making recommendations to the president, Congress and the US justice department, along with state legislatures and individual law enforcement departments. Amnesty suggests that laws be brought into compliance with international standards at every level, and that the justice department oversee a national commission “to examine and produce recommendations on policing issues, including a nationwide review of police use of lethal force laws ... as well as a thorough review and reform of oversight and accountability mechanisms”.
Hawkins told the Guardian he expected some resistance to the recommendations from police unions and other agencies but added his hope that “with so much attention on law enforcement and its use of lethal force within the US, in the next legislative session this report will produce some energy for change”.