In its July 1998 report, Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States, Human Rights Watch documents police misconduct in fourteen cities: Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Indianapolis, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia, Portland, Providence, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. Human Rights Watch found that all the cities share a lack of effective public accountability and transparency, a persistent failure to investigate and punish officers who commit human rights violations, and a variety of obstacles to achieving justice.
Some of Human Rights Watch's recommendations:
(1) Federal aid should go only to those state and local police departments that can show they are taking concrete steps to respect human rights and curb police abuse.
(2) Steps that police departments should take include: creating and strengthening civilian review agencies; putting early warning systems into place to identify officers who are the subject of repeated complaints; and creating a special prosecutor's office to pursue cases against officers accused of criminal conduct.
(3) International human rights covenants should be implemented. The U.S. is obligated to uphold international human rights standards, and international human rights law provides greater protections than U.S. law in more areas.
The official response to our report varied from city to city. In Detroit and Washington, D.C., for example, police officials acknowledged that the problems identified in the report were serious and that reforms were needed. Other officials, as in New York City and Providence, Rhode Island, resorted to name-calling and defensiveness. Others remained silent, but did agree to meet with Human Rights Watch representatives following the report's release.
On the federal level, Justice Department officials requested a meeting with Human Rights Watch to discuss the federal role in prosecuting officers accused of brutality and in investigating police departments exhibiting a pattern of abuse. We also continue to communicate with Civil Rights Division staff in the Justice Department regarding policies and cases of concern.
On April 15, 1999, in her first major speech on police brutality after six years in office, Attorney General Janet Reno acknowledged that "there is a problem." She stated that "effective policing does not mean abusive policing" and presented a five-point program to improve accountability and repair police-community relations in the wake of several high-profile incidents of alleged brutality. The speech acknowledged the problem of police abuse and poor accountability, but she failed to insist on improvements from police officials.
What you can do:
- Write to your city government and urge that full funding be provided for citizen review of police officers accused of human rights violations. If your city, county, or town does not have citizen review of your police, call for the creation of an effective civilian review unit.
- Write to your city government and urge it to require your police department to create and utilize "early warning" or "at-risk" systems to identify officers who are the subjects of repeated complaints or civil lawsuits alleging misconduct. A small percentage of officers often taint an entire police force because police superiors do not act to hold them accountable by supervising, disciplining, or dismissing them when appropriate. An effective early warning system could make a difference.
- Write to your state legislators and governor urging them to create a special prosecutor's office to handle the investigation and prosecution of police officers accused of brutality or corruption. As it is, local prosecutors are often reluctant to pursue cases against officers they typically work with, and federal prosecutors are under-staffed and similarly reluctant. Special prosecutors' offices in each state could go a long way toward prosecuting officers who commit criminal offenses; in turn, effective prosecution should act as a deterrent for officers who now believe they can avoid criminal prosecution for brutality in most cases.
- Write to your U.S. Representative or Senator, urging them to condition federal grants to police departments on the departments' creation of effective accountability systems. On April 15, 1999, Attorney General Janet Reno described the components of such a system, using the same standard as set out in recent consent decrees between the Justice Department and two police departments:
* Complaints procedures must be accessible;
Federal grants should only be provided for departments that are taking concrete steps toward creating improved accountability systems.
|back to top back to main U.S. page HRW home|