Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Police abuse remains one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the United States. The excessive use of force by police officers, including unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and rough treatment, persists because overwhelming barriers to accountability make it possible for officers who commit human rights violations to escape due punishment and often to repeat their offenses.1 Police or public officials greet each new report of brutality with denials or explain that the act was an aberration, while the administrative and criminal systems that should deter these abuses by holding officers accountable instead virtually guarantee them impunity.
This report examines common obstacles to accountability for police abuse in fourteen large cities representing most regions of the nation. 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. Research for this report was conducted over two and a half years, from late 1995 through early 1998.
The brutality cases examined, which are set out in detail in chapters on each city, are similar to cases that continue to emerge in headlines and in survivors' complaints. It is important to note, however, that because it is difficult to obtain case information except where there is public scandal and/or prosecution, this reportrelies heavily on cases that have reached public attention; disciplinary action and criminal prosecution are even less common than the cases set out below would suggest.
Our investigation found that police brutality is persistent in all of these cities; that systems to deal with abuse have had similar failings in all the cities; and that, in each city examined, complainants face enormous barriers in seeking administrative punishment or criminal prosecution of officers who have committed human rights violations. Despite claims to the contrary from city officials where abuses have become scandals in the media, efforts to make meaningful reforms have fallen short.
The barriers to accountability are remarkably similar from city to city. Shortcomings in recruitment, training, and management are common to all. So is the fact that officers who repeatedly commit human rights violations tend to be a small minority who taint entire police departments but are protected, routinely, by the silence of their fellow officers and by flawed systems of reporting, oversight, and accountability. Another pervasive shortcoming is the scarcity of meaningful information about trends in abuse; data are also lacking regarding the police departments' response to those incidents and their plans or actions to prevent brutality. Where data do exist, there is no evidence that police administrators or, where relevant, prosecutors, utilize available information in a way to deter abuse.2 Another commonality in recent years is a recognition, in most cities, about what needs to be done to fix troubled departments. However, this encouraging development is coupled with an official unwillingness to deal seriously with officers who commit abuses until high-profile cases expose long-standing negligence or tolerance of brutality.
One recent, positive development has been the federal "pattern or practice" civil investigations, and subsequent agreements, initiated by the U.S. Justice Department.3 In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Steubenville, Ohio, the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division has examined shortcomings in accountability for misconduct in those cities' police departments; the cities agreed to implement reforms to end violative practices rather than risk the Justice Department taking a case to court for injunctive action. The reforms proposed by the Justice Department were similar to those long advocated by community activists and civil rights groups, and included better use-of-force training and policies, stronger reporting mechanisms, creation of early warning systems to identify current, and potential, officers at risk of engaging in abuse, and improved disciplinary procedures. The Justice Department does not usually make its investigative choices public, but several other police departments, including those in Los Angeles, New Orleans, New York, and Philadelphia, are reportedly under investigation by the Civil Rights Division.
Police abuse experts, and some police officials, refer to "problem" officers, by which they mean officers who either have significant records of abuse or significant records of complaints from the public, and who thus should receive special monitoring, training and counseling to counter the heightened risk that they will be involved in some future incident of misconduct or brutality. In this report, we will use this terminology where police officials and experts use it, to denote officers who, on account of their record of either sustained or unsustained complaints, appear to present a higher than normal risk of committing human rights violations.
Allegations of police abuse are rife in cities throughout the country and take many forms. This report uses specific incidents as illustrations of the obstacles to deterring, investigating and acting upon perceived abuses. Human Rights Watch is presenting these cases not to accuse any particular officer of an abuse, but rather to describe the barriers that exist to addressing such allegations meaningfully. Any alleged abuse has a corrosive effect on public trust of the police force, and it is imperative that the system be reformed to prevent human rights violations such as those described below.
Human Rights Watch recognizes that police officers, like other people, will make mistakes when they are under pressure to make split-second decisions regarding the use of force. Even the best recruiting, training, and command oversight will not result in flawless behavior on the part of all officers. Furthermore, we recognize that policing in the United States is a dangerous job. During 1996, 116 officers died while on duty nationwide (from all causes - shootings, assaults, accidents, and natural causes).23 Yet, precisely because police officers can make mistakes, or allow personal bias or emotion to enter into policing - and because they are allowed, as a last resort, to use potentially lethal force to subdue individuals they apprehend - police must be subjected to intense scrutiny.24
The abuses described in this report are preventable. Officers with long records of abuse, policies that are overly vague, training that is substandard, and screening that is inadequate all create opportunities for abuse. Perhaps most important, and consistently lacking, is a system of oversight in which supervisors hold their charges accountable for mistreatment and are themselves reviewed and evaluated, in part, by how they deal with subordinate officers who commit human rights violations. Those who claim that each high-profile case of abuse by a "rogue" officer is an aberration are missing the point: problem officers frequently persist because the accountability systems are so seriously flawed.
Police, state, and federal authorities are responsible for holding police officers accountable for abusive or arbitrary acts.25 Police officials must ensure that police officers are punished when they violate administrative rules, while state and federal prosecutors must prosecute criminal acts committed by officers, and where appropriate, complicity by their superior officers.26 Each of these entities apply different standards when reviewing officer responsibility for an alleged abuse.27 All of these authorities have an obligation to ensure that the conduct of police officersmeets international standards that prohibit human rights violations and that, in general, the U.S. complies with the obligations imposed by those treaties to which it is a party. While only the federal government is responsible for reporting internationally on U.S. compliance with the relevant treaties, local and state officials share responsibility for ensuring compliance within their jurisdictions.28
1 "Excessive force" is used throughout this report to refer to force that exceeds what is objectively reasonable and necessary in the circumstances confronting the officer to subdue a person, as in Article 3 of the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (see appendix H), which provides that: "Law enforcement officials should use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty." GA resolution 34/169 passed on December 17, 1979, and in the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, which stipulates that, "Whenever the use of force and firearms is unavoidable, law enforcement officials shall exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offence and the legitimate objective to be achieved." UN Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 (1990). In Graham v. Connor 490 U.S. 386 (1989), the United States Supreme Court held that that the United States Constitution's Fourth Amendment requirement of "reasonableness" on the part of the police applies to "all claims that law enforcement officials have used excessive force - deadly or not - in the course of an arrest, investigatory stop, or other seizure of a free person." Throughout this report, the term "excessive force" refers to abuse occurring both during apprehension and while in custody. This report also describes sexual assaults and torture by police officers which are not, strictly speaking "excessive" use of force, but are unjustified and criminal assaults.
2 In the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, the U.S. Justice Department was tasked with collecting data on the frequency and types of abuse complaints filed nationwide. At the time of this writing, nearly four years later, no such report has been issued. (See below.)
3 The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 included a new statute under which the Justice Department may sue for declaratory relief (a statement of the governing law) and equitable relief (an order to abide by the law with specific instructions describing actions that must be taken) if any governmental authority or person acting on behalf of any governmental authority engages in: "a pattern or practice of conduct by law enforcement officers...that deprives persons of rights, privileges, or immunities secured or protected by the Constitution or laws of the United States." "Police Pattern or Practice" 42 U.S.C. §14141.
5 Officers also reportedly placed a surgical mask on Williams during the encounter and the mask was discarded at the scene; examination of the mask may have made clear whether pepper spray was used after Williams was subdued or if its use contributed to his death by restricting breathing. Rachel Gordon and Katherine Seligman, "Did cops skirt rules in death of suspect?" San Francisco Examiner, June 8, 1995.
8 Jim Herron Zamora, "Cop kicked suspect's head, say 3 witnesses," San Francisco Examiner, October 8, 1996; Zamora, "S.F. cop cleared of using excess force," San Francisco Examiner, November 21, 1996.
12 Of the fourteen city police departments examined by Human Rights Watch, only four - San Francisco, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Minneapolis - still allow chokeholds. 1993 Law Enforcement Management and Administrative Statistics, 1993, Bureau of Justice Statistics, Washington, D.C., pp. 169-180.
13 Mark Bowden, "Major offenses by Philadelphia cops often bring minor punishments," Philadelphia Inquirer, November 19, 1995; and case files of off-duty actions provided to Temple University Prof. James Fyfe by the police department's Internal Affairs Division. He compiled case studies titled "Philadelphia police off-duty actions: Complaints and Shootings," May 23, 1994.
18 Sherri Edwards and Erica Franklin, "Jury finds police officer guilty of intentionally killing suspect," The Indianapolis Star, April 22, 1995; U.P.I., "FBI probes police shooting," June 20, 1991; "Police confrontations," Indianapolis News, July 27, 1995.
20 Welton W. Harris II, "Officer loses fatal shooting suit," Indianapolis News, April 22, 1995; Sherri Edwards and Erica Franklin, "City may appeal verdict giving slain man's family $465,000," Indianapolis Star, April 23, 1995; telephone interview with Greg Ray of the Office of Corporation Counsel, July 28, 1997.
23 National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund, online at http://www.1nleomf.com/ and the Associated Press, December 31, 1996. The 1996 death total was the lowest since 1959. Of the 116, more officers died from traffic accidents, falls, plane crashes and heart attacks than by acts of criminal suspects or others (shootings, stabbings, or assaults). During 1997, 159 law enforcement officers were killed in the line of duty, including seventy who were shot to death. During the 1990s, 151 officers have been killed annually, on average.
24 Principle 4 of the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials states, "[L]aw enforcement officials, in carrying out their duty, shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force and firearms. They may use force and firearms only if other means remain ineffective or without any promise of achieving the intended result." UN Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 (1990).
25 Principle 7 of the U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials state, "Governments shall ensure that arbitrary or abusive use of force and firearms by law enforcement officials is punished as a criminal offence under their law." UN Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 (1990).
26 U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials, calls for accountability for superior officers: "Governments and law enforcement agencies shall ensure that superior officers are held responsible if they know, or should have known, that law enforcement officials under their command are resorting, or have resorted, to the unlawful use of force and firearms, and they did not take all measures in their power to prevent, suppress or report such use. Principle 24. UN Doc. A/CONF.144/28/Rev.1 (1990).
27 There are several standards used by different entities when reviewing officer responsibility for an alleged abuse. In civil cases, a "preponderance of the evidence" standard is used. A more rigorous standard is used in state criminal cases (for charges such as assault, manslaughter, murder, etc.), "beyond a reasonable doubt," and in federal criminal civil rights cases, a prosecutor must also prove that the officer in question specifically intended to deprive an individual of his or her civil rights. Whether in state or federal court, an officer must be indicted by a grand jury before standing trial. And, when an officer is administratively charged by his police department for breaking the department's rules, the standard should be the same as in civil cases - preponderance of the evidence - but in practice is often similar to a criminal standard of "beyond a reasonable doubt."
28 According to the Understanding filed by the U.S. upon its ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights: "That the United States understands that this Covenant shall be implemented by the Federal Government to the extent that it exercises legislative and judicial jurisdiction over the matters covered therein and otherwise by the state and local governments; to the extent that state and local governments exercise jurisdiction over such matters, the Federal Government shall take measures appropriate to the Federal system to the end that the competent authorities of the state or local governments may take appropriate measures for the fulfilment of the Covenant." (As submitted by the U.S. Senate on April 2, 1992.) This provision is not a reservation and does not modify or limit the international obligations of the United States under the Covenant. Rather, it addresses the essentially domestic issue of how the Covenant will be implemented within the U.S. federal system. It serves to emphasize domestically that there was no intent to alter the constitutional balance of authority between federal government on the one hand and the state and local governments on the other, or to use the provisions of the Covenant to federalize matters now within the competence of the states. It also serves to notify other States Parties that the United States will implement its obligations under the Covenant by appropriate legislative, executive and judicial means, federal or state, and that the federal government will remove any federal inhibition to the abilities of the constituent states to meet their obligations in this regard.
© June 1998
Human Rights Watch