HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH Shielded from Justice: Police Brutality and Accountability in the United States
Summary and Recommendations:

Public Accountability and Transparency
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Reforms to curb abusive police conduct - or, at least, punishments of specific abusive officers - tend to occur only when the local news media or high-profile court cases focus public attention on the problem. That this happens relatively seldom, in comparison with the incidence of ill-treatment, is partly due to the lack of information supplied to the public regarding allegations of police brutality.

Citizen review agencies, tasked with monitoring and, in some cases, investigating cases of excessive force, are undermined from all sides: by police unions and others who attack them, by city officials who under-fund them, and by police officers who refuse to cooperate with them. Moreover, the limited mandates of many civilian review agencies discourage public involvement or support. Some citizen review agencies do not produce public reports, while others provide incomplete information to the public. None of the reports we examined indicates whether an officer was disciplined in a specific case or prosecuted in a criminal proceeding. Although these agencies are the point of greatest transparency in the system, their reports almost never include even the most basic facts on specific cases that are of interest to the public.

Police internal affairs units, the principal departmental investigators of physical abuse allegations, operate as a rule with excessive secrecy. The public, to whom police departments should be accountable, thus cannot ascertain whether, in fact, the police are policing themselves. Indeed, information about the operations and activities of internal affairs units is nearly impossible to obtain; in some cities, internal affairs representatives refused to answer, or ignored, Human Rights Watch's requests for basic information, with some refusing even to provide information about the number of investigators or other staff in their units. Essential information, such as the number of deaths in custody in a particular department, is generally withheld or is provided in a manner that is unhelpful in determining responsibility for the death. While police representatives claim privacy issues are the reason for protecting information about investigations or disciplinary hearings, police departments also resist providing information even when relevant names or other identifying information is excised.

Local prosecutors are no more transparent. When police officers are prosecuted for human rights violations, it is usually under state criminal charges of murder, manslaughter, assault, battery, or rape. Comprehensive statistics are generally not made available to the public regarding prosecution efforts against police officers, reasons for prosecutorial decisions, or prosecutorial success rates in these cases. Without information about the number of police officers prosecuted, which does not appear to be maintained by most district attorneys' offices, it is impossible to know with certainty whether local attorneys are appropriately handling cases (and, consequently, whether federal prosecutors need to initiate their own investigations).

Federal data are hardly more useful. Federal prosecutors do track the numbers of civil rights complaints filed with the Justice Department, as well as the number of ensuing indictments and prosecutions, but two different offices at the Justice Department maintain parallel and incompatible databases - and the Federal Bureau of Investigations maintains its own distinct data on civil rights investigations - so that no one office is able to provide the public with complete information regarding complaints against, and prosecutions of, police officers in a particular U.S. district or city. Nor does the Justice Department provide public analysis of the imperfect statistics it does have, such as to account for increases or decreases in alleged cases of brutality in any category or region.

Almost four years after Congress called on the Justice Department to produce a nationwide report on the use of excessive force by police officers, that report is still awaited. In November 1997, the Justice Department released a preliminary report describing a pilot household survey that focused on contact between police and the public; and in May 1998, the first status summary on a use-of-force data compilation project was made available. Yet, despite the congressional mandate, which requires the Justice Department to acquire data about the use of excessive force by law enforcement officers, the 1997 survey solicited information from households about all types of encounters with police, both favorable and unfavorable, and the use-of-force data project, headed by the International Association of Chief of Police, is collecting data submitted by a small percentage of police departments, which voluntarily provide information about incidents.

In sum, the preliminary reports have avoided the crucial question that Congress asked the Justice Department to answer. We call on the Justice Department to refocus its efforts, reallocate its research grants, and produce a report responsive to its mandate on this issue. Without the information requested by Congress, and more, it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, for governments and police departments to craft enlightened policies that balance the importance of public order with the absolute requirement that the state protect anyone in its jurisdiction from human rights abuses at the hands of police officers.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch