Each of the 50 United States has failed to comply with international standards on police use of lethal force, a reality that threatens lives, poses grave human rights concerns, perpetuates institutional racism, and requires immediate reform, a new report by Amnesty International published Thursday has found.
Moreover, the limited available statistics on police killings of civilians, as well as recent high-profile shootings of unarmed black men and women around the country, exposes "a widespread pattern of racially discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers and an alarming use of lethal force nationwide."
"Police have a fundamental obligation to protect human life. Deadly force must be reserved as a method of absolute last resort," said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA. "The fact that absolutely no state laws conform to this standard is deeply disturbing and raises serious human rights concerns."
In Deadly Force: Police Use of Lethal Force in the United States (pdf), researchers reviewed U.S. Supreme Court decisions, guidelines on deadly force as issued by the U.S. Justice Department, and available statistical data on fatal encounters, which led to one stark conclusion:
The United States has failed to respect and protect the right to life by failing to ensure that domestic legislation meets international human rights law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.
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What is needed now, according to Amnesty, is an immediate overhaul of policing practices and standards at both the state and federal levels to ensure that use of lethal force is restricted in compliance with international law. In addition, the organization recommends that statistics on police shootings be collected and published by the Justice Department; that accountability and oversight for the use of lethal force be enforced; and that the Police Reporting Information, Data, and Evidence (PRIDE) Act and the End Racial Profiling Act be passed into law.
Basic principles on the use of force and firearms by law enforcement, as dictated by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, ratified by the U.S. in 1992, state that "lethal use of firearms may only be made when strictly unavoidable in order to protect life," the report notes.
"Reform is needed and it is needed and it is needed immediately. Lives are at stake."
Stephen W. Hawkins, Amnesty International USA
Every U.S. state, as well as Washington, D.C., fail in this regard, Amnesty found. Thirteen states do not even comply with "the lower standards set by U.S. constitutional law" on the use of police deadly force, while nine states and Washington, D.C. currently have zero laws on the issue.
Those states include Maryland, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming.
But enforcing guidelines on use of deadly force should not simply allow law enforcement to fall back on methods considered "less lethal" than firearms, such as Tasers or physical force, Amnesty states: "International standards also emphasize the need for law enforcement to use other means before resorting to the use of force, and to be trained in alternatives to the use of force, including the peaceful settlement of conflicts, understanding of crowd behavior, and skills of persuasion, negotiation and mediation."
Domestic laws worldwide must comply with international standards, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions Christof Heyns said in a 2014 report, cited by Amnesty. "It is too late to attend to this when tensions rise."
Thursday's report comes just weeks after President Barack Obama's Task Force on 21st Century Policing released its findings on law enforcement in the U.S. and recommendations on reforming it.
That task force concluded:
Paramount among the policies of law enforcement organizations are those controlling use of force. Not only should there be policies for deadly and nondeadly uses of force but a clearly stated 'sanctity of life' philosophy must also be in the forefront of every officer's mind. This way of thinking should be accompanied by rigorous practical ongoing training in an atmosphere of non-judgmental and safe sharing of views with fellow officers about how they behaved in use of force situations.
Amnesty's report also lists a number of recent high-profile cases to illustrate how police killings span age, gender, and method—but disproportionately target black and brown communities.
There was Michael Brown, 18, of Ferguson, Missouri. There was Kajieme Powell, 25, of St. Louis, Missouri—just 10 days later. There was Rekia Boyd, 22, of Chicago, Illinois. Eric Garner, 43, of Long Island, New York. Ezell Ford, 25, of Los Angeles, California. Tamir Rice, 12, of Cleveland, Ohio. Walter Scott, 50, of North Charleston, South Carolina. And Freddie Gray, 25, of Baltimore, Maryland.
"These are all cases that have received national media attention; however, there are many more including Hispanic and Indigenous individuals from communities across the country who have died at the hands of the police," the report states.
"Reform is needed and it is needed immediately," Hawkins added. "Lives are at stake."