Transparency Required in Investigations of Police Misconduct
October 28, 2011
The United States’ tradition of peaceful protest is protected not only in US law but also under international law. Even when protesters’ actions warrant police intervention, force should only be used where strictly necessary and then only to the degree necessary.
Alison Parker, US program director at Human Rights Watch

(Washington, DC) – State and local officials in the United States should respect protesters’ rights to free speech and assembly, and prevent and investigate the use of excessive force against them, Human Rights Watch said today. Apparent police misconduct and the unnecessary use of force in response to ongoing Occupy Wall Street protests around the country heightens the need for vigilance on the part of public officials to ensure that excessive force is neither authorized nor used with impunity.

“The United States’ tradition of peaceful protest is protected not only in US law but also under international law,” said Alison Parker, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “Even when protesters’ actions warrant police intervention, force should only be used where strictly necessary and then only to the degree necessary.”

The police chief in Oakland, California has promised an investigation into alleged police use of force that injured a protester. On October 25, 2011, in video footage posted to YouTube, Scott Olsen, 24, was injured by a projectile that appears to have been thrown from behind police barricades into a group of Occupy Oakland protesters. Olsen reportedly suffered a fractured skull and brain swelling.

“The police investigation into the Occupy Oakland clashes should disclose the rationale for the use of force, the crowd-control devices used, and the criteria for using them,” Parker said. “If police misconduct occurred, the authorities should swiftly impose appropriate sanctions and take steps to ensure it doesn’t recur.”

The New York Police Department opened an investigation soon after the September 24 incident in which a police officer used pepper spray on two Occupy Wall Street protesters. The investigation concluded that Deputy Inspector Anthony Bologna violated department guidelines.  He was disciplined with the loss of 10 vacation days and was transferred to Staten Island, where he will serve as “special projects coordinator.” Criminal investigations of this incident are also pending.  

The United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials states that “law enforcement officials may use force only when strictly necessary and to the extent required for the performance of their duty.” The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms provide that law enforcement officials “shall, as far as possible, apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force” and may use force “only if other means remain ineffective.” When the use of force is unavoidable, law enforcement officials should “exercise restraint in such use and act in proportion to the seriousness of the offense.”