HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
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Public Accountability and Transparency
Investigation and Discipline
Obstacles to Justice
Obstacles to Justice
Investigation and Discipline
Public Accountability and Transparency

Police brutality is one of the most serious, enduring, and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The problem is nationwide, and its nature is institutionalized. For these reasons, the U.S. government - as well as state and city governments, which have an obligation to respect the international human rights standards by which the United States is bound - deserve to be held accountable by international human rights bodies and international public opinion.

Police officers engage in unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and unnecessarily rough physical treatment in cities throughout the United States, while their police superiors, city officials, and the Justice Department fail to act decisively to restrain or penalize such acts or even to record the full magnitude of the problem. Habitually brutal officers - usually a small percentage of officers on a force - may be the subject of repeated complaints but are usually protected by their fellow officers and by the shoddiness of internal police investigations. A victim seeking redress faces obstacles at every point in the process, ranging from overt intimidation to the reluctance of local and federal prosecutors to take on brutality cases. Severe abuses persist because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it all too likely that officers who commit human rights violations escape due punishment to continue their abusive conduct.

This report is based on research conducted in fourteen U.S. cities over two and a half years. Rather than focusing on one city and its police department's problem with abuse, as most studies of police abuse have done, we examined large cities representing most regions of the nation to find common obstacles to accountability. The cities examined are: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. In researching this report, Human Rights Watch interviewed and corresponded with attorneys representing victims alleging ill-treatment by police, representatives of police department internal affairs units, police officers, citizen review agency staff, city officials, Justice Department officials, representatives of federal U.S. attorneys' offices, local prosecutors' office representatives, experts on police abuse, and victims of abuse.

Human Rights Watch recognizes that police officers, like all human beings, are fallible, and that the situations they confront are often dangerous and require quick decisions. But, as described in this report, the cost of pervasive police abuse is monumental - in the tens of millions of dollars in damages that cities pay every year in response to victims' civil lawsuits; in police criminality and the corruption of ideals of public service; in the ensuing public mistrust that - particularly in communities of racial minorities - creates a rift between the police and the public.

Race continues to play a central role in police brutality in the United States. Indeed, despite gains in many areas since the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, one area that has been stubbornly resistant to change has been the treatment afforded racial minorities by police. In the cities we have examined where such data are available, minorities have alleged human rights violations by police more frequently than white residents and far out of proportion to their representation in those cities. Police have subjected minorities to apparently discriminatory treatment and have physically abused minorities while using racial epithets. Each new incident involving police mistreatment of an African-American, Hispanic-American or other minority - and particularly those that receive media attention - reinforces a belief that some residents are subjected to particularly harsh treatment and racial bias.

If the barriers to accountability described in this report were removed, the number and severity of abuses that officers commit would no doubt be greatly reduced. Yet the administrative and legal procedures that should guarantee accountability are seriously flawed and have been extremely resistant to change. In fact, many of the problems we describe in this report have been highlighted in previous studies on police practices: the 1968 Kerner Commission report, the 1981 report of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and several more recent studies on especially troubled city police departments. Nevertheless, most police departments examined by Human Rights Watch continue with "business as usual" until scandals emerge. Those who claim that each high-profile human rights abuse is an aberration, committed by a "rogue" officer, are missing the point: human rights violations persist in large part because the accountability systems are so defective.

Victims of police brutality have many options for reporting abusive treatment by officers but little chance of seeing those officers punished or prosecuted. Citizen review agencies are often overwhelmed and understaffed; reporting an abuse to such an agency may, eventually, lead to an investigation, but it is unlikely to result in the offending officer's being appropriately punished. Filing an abuse complaint with a police department's internal affairs unit can be intimidating, and police departments' excessive secrecy usually means that the complainant learns nothing about any disciplinary action that may have been taken against the accused officer. Filing a civil lawsuit is an option for some victims, but success rates vary widely from city to city, and typically it is the municipality rather than the officer that is held financially responsible. Also, most victims of abuse correctly perceive that criminal prosecution, either locally or federally, is rarely an option - except in highly publicized cases. As a result, resentment and frustration often exacerbate the original abusive treatment. Because it is an open secret that oversight procedures for police abuse do not function effectively, many abuse victims do not even bother to pursue a complaint at all. This series of factors results in violent officers remaining on the job.

In examining human rights violations committed by police officers and barriers to investigation, redress, and prosecution, we found common shortcomings in all of the cities we examined. These failings fall into three basic categories: lack of effective public accountability and transparency, persistent failure to investigate and punish officers who commit human rights violations, and obstacles to justice. We offer recommendations addressed to officials at all levels - departmental, municipal, and federal - and emphasize that reform at all levels and in all three areas is required to secure real change.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch