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Related Materials

US: "Consent Decree" to Curb NYPD Abuses Needed
Press Release, August 24, 2000

US: Investigation of Philadelphia Police Needed
Press Release, August 23, 2000

HRW Letter to Philadelphia Mayor John Street and Police Commissioner John Timoney
August 22, 2000

Pattern of Post-Chase Police Abuse Condemned
July 14, 2000

The Philadelphia Videotape: Questions Unanswered About Police Behavior
July 14, 2000

Human Rights Watch Letters, April 25, 2000

To the Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey

To the Director of U.S. Marshal Service

Statement in Support of the Law Enforcement Trust and Integrity Act of 2000
March 2000

Independent Panel Should Review Police at WTO
Press Release, December 2, 1999

Report Charges Police Abuse In U.S. Goes Unchecked
July 1998

HRW Responds To Guiliani's Disappointing Refusal To Seriously Address Problem Of Police Brutality
July 1998

Abuse by law enforcement officers in the United States is one of the most serious and divisive human rights violations in the country. The violations persist nationwide, in rural, suburban, and urban areas of the country, committed by various law enforcement personnel including local and state police, sheriff's departments, and federal agents. Police have engaged in unjustified shootings, severe beatings, fatal chokings, and unnecessarily rough treatment. While the proportion of repeatedly abusive officers on any force is generally small, responsible authorities— including law enforcement supervisors, as well as local and federal government leadership—often fail to act decisively to restrain or penalize such acts.

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;
* Internal affairs units must conduct thorough and fair investigations;
* When complaints are sustained, discipline must be applied swiftly;
* An early warning system should be used to identify repeat offenders on police forces;
* Efforts should be made to combat the "code of silence";
* Screening and training should be improved; and
* An independent auditor or inspector general should be empowered to provide an external check on law enforcement practices and policies.

Federal grants should only be provided for departments that are taking concrete steps toward creating improved accountability systems.

Use these links to find contact information for your Congressional representatives in the Senate and the House.

Write to:
The Honorable Janet Reno, Attorney General
Department of Justice
Tenth Street and Constitution Ave., N.W.
Room #5111
Washington, D.C. 20530

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