Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
An investigative report by the San Francisco Examiner in 1996 found that the city was paying large amounts in civil lawsuits following officer-involved shootings, but the officers were not being disciplined by the department, or criminally prosecuted. Between 1988 and September 1996, according to this report, SanFrancisco police officers shot eighty-six people, killing thirty-one and injuring fifty-five.50
According to the investigative series, homicide investigations of police shootings quickly affirm officers' accounts, and the district attorney's office does not serve as a check on the homicide investigation but merely confirms the findings. The explanation for this record is similar to that in other cities - top police administrators have shown little observable commitment to holding officers accountable, instead shielding officers who commit human rights violations from exposure and punishment. The district attorney's office often does not want to prosecute officers on whom it relies in criminal cases, and the city wants to avoid lawsuits for large amounts that would be easier if the facts were proven against the officer by the internal investigators or in a criminal proceeding.
After several shooting investigations were criticized (See above), the department established new procedures in 1995 that allow more review by the OCC and the Police Commission, but many police abuse experts believe the process is still too secretive. Prior to 1995, the Discharge Review Board was a panel of three deputy chiefs, including current Chief Fred Lau, who met privately, kept no minutes and made no public reports. Now, the chief makes public a summary of the internal Management Control Division (MCD) review and sends a copy of its findings to the OCC. Critics of the revised procedure have noted that no information identifying the officer may be disclosed.
The new policy also requires that homicide investigators explore whether the shooting broke the law, while MCD investigates whether it broke department policy, with the homicide unit retaining initial control of witnesses and the scene. This dual investigative authority has led to disagreements between homicide investigators and the MCD, with each unit criticizing the other's investigative efforts, while coming to different conclusions about what occurred.
Also in 1995, the police department revised its policy guiding when an officer may shoot.51 The old policy allowed officers to shoot when necessary to arrest a suspect in a felony involving deadly force. Prior to the change in policy, the department had not been in compliance with international human rights standards, or with the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Tennessee v. Garner, which requires that police officers only shoot at fleeing felony suspects when necessary to prevent escape and when there was probable cause to believe that they posed a significantdanger.52 The new policy permits them to shoot only if the suspect also poses a risk of serious injury if not arrested quickly. It also urges officers to give a warning before firing.
52 Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985). The old policy was in clear violation of international human rights standards. For example, the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, requiring that "law enforcement officials shall not use firearms against persons except in self-defence or defence of others against imminent threat of death or serious injury, to prevent the perpetration of a particularly serious crime involving grave threat to life, to arrest a person presenting such a danger and resisting their authority, or to prevent his or her escape, and only when less extreme means are insufficient to achieve these objectives. In any event, intentional lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable to protect life." (See overview for additional international human rights standards.)
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch