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

Investigation and Discipline
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(1) Federal, state, and city governments should coordinate to ensure that policies discouraging police abuse are reinforced at all levels.

  • A tracking system should be established at the state or, ideally, federal level to prevent officers who have committed abuses and have been dismissed from one department from being hired as law enforcement officers elsewhere. Police departments and other law enforcement agencies should be required to submit relevant information to the tracking office when an officer is dismissed for serious misconduct (including human rights abuses) or when an officer resigns before a determination is made regarding the officer's alleged abuse. Police recruiters should be required to check with the tracking office prior to offering a position to any applicant. Further, uniform standards regarding the criminal background "acceptable" for police recruits should be created so that individuals with a record of violent criminal behavior are not hired due to low standards used by some police departments. That standard should exclude any officer convicted in any criminal court of any violent crime, whether prosecuted as a felony or misdemeanor.

  • Police officer decertification procedures, which exist in thirty-nine states, should be reinvigorated and fully funded so that police officers who engage in serious misconduct (including human rights violations) will be "decertified" as officers and unable to serve on any police force in the state. The eleven states in which the Peace Officer's Standards and Training (POST) Commission, or its equivalent, does not have decertification powers should so empower the commission. All states should revise their statutes or regulations to require that police chiefs or commissioners report to the POST commission the dismissal or resignation of officers accused of serious misconduct (including human rights violations). Federal legislation should be introduced that would link the data currently collected by state POST commissions so that such officers are not allowed to obtain employment in a neighboring state or with federal law enforcement agencies.

(2) City and state governments and police department leaders should take measures to end impunity for all officers, but particularly for "problem" or "at-risk" officers - usually a small percentage of officers on each force that are repeatedly the subject of complaints and civil lawsuits - who persistently escape appropriate discipline and/or prosecution.

Police leadership must send a strong and clear message to officers under their command, through words and actions, that human rights violations will not be tolerated and that departmental policies, and the law, will be strictly enforced.

  • Whether conducted by civilian review agencies, internal affairs units, or other police personnel, all investigations should be prompt, thorough, and impartial.

  • The findings of police investigators (by precincts/districts, internal affairs units, or homicide divisions) in cases involving the alleged use of excessive force or other serious human rights violations should always be reviewed by civilians at some level - whether civilian review agencies or auditors, civilian police commissions, or city councils.

  • Whenever a police officer has been arrested or indicted, the officer should be removed from the field and assigned to desk duty or suspended with pay, depending upon the charges, until the case is resolved. Whenever a case against an officer is pending consideration by a grand jury or if authorities have reason to believe that the officer may have been involved in abusive conduct, the officer should - at a minimum - be placed on desk duty. Any officer convictedof any violent criminal offense, whether felony or misdemeanor, should be dismissed.

  • Any officer involved in an on- or off-duty shooting should be assigned to desk duty or suspended with pay, depending upon the circumstances of the shooting, until the incident is investigated and resolved. Any officer against whom a complaint has been filed alleging the use of excessive force or other human rights violation resulting in the injury of the complainant or alleged victim should be assigned to desk duty or suspended with pay until the incident is investigated and resolved.

  • When an officer who has been the subject of numerous complaints alleging human rights violations from citizens or fellow officers, or who has been repeatedly sued civilly for alleged abuse, yet is tolerated by his or her immediate superior who fails to discipline, retrain or otherwise address and curtail the officer's alleged ill-treatment of suspects or others, the superior officer should be investigated by the internal affairs unit or other appropriate investigators and held accountable for the subordinate officer's actions. If it is found the superior officer has failed to report the abuses or otherwise tolerated persistent abusive behavior on the part of any of the officers he or she supervises, the superior officer should be disciplined appropriately and the finding that he has failed to act to curtail abuses should become a permanent part of his personnel record and considered as a strong negative factor if promotion is considered. Those placed higher in the chain of command should routinely review those who directly supervise officers to ensure that they are appropriately handling their subordinates.

  • Police officials must address seriously the code of silence that undermines efforts to hold police accountable for abuse. They must provide consistent positive reinforcement for those who report human rights violations and punishment for those who fail to do so. Supervisors should stigmatize abuse, not those who report it.

  • Police officers who set a positive example by doing their job while dealing appropriately and respectfully with residents, intervening when fellow officers become abusive, and reporting violations when they do occur should be rewarded through preferred assignments and promotions to demonstrate that such officers will benefit professionally.

  • Police departments must establish and utilize effective early warning systems to identify officers who repeatedly abuse the public they are sworn to serve, as well as programs for officers who are having emotional or other problems and need assistance to avoid committing a serious abuse. Early warning systems should take into account all complaints, use of force reports, civil lawsuits, and internal police management information concerning an officer. The threshold for triggering a review of an officer with repeated complaints or civil lawsuits should be low enough to ensure that officers receive attention and are handled appropriately before they repeatedly use excessive force against the public.

  • Light-handed counseling should never replace strong disciplinary actions in serious cases of abuse in a misguided attempt to help officers who should, in fact, be punished or dismissed. Similarly, transfers should not be used as a tool to address an abuse problem; supervisors who choose to pass the problem to another precinct or district, thereby endangering residents and officers, should be punished appropriately.

  • Sustained complaints against an officer should never be purged from an officer's file after a set period of time.

  • The findings of civilian review agencies should be binding on the relevant police department unless the department can find - and describe fully and publicly - gross negligence or determinative factual errors on the review agency's part.

  • When civilian review boards or internal affairs divisions have "sustained" a complaint against an officer, but the police department fails to discipline the officer at all, a detailed justification for the department's disregard of the "sustained" finding should be publicly provided as part of the review board's or the internal affairs unit's annual report, described below.

  • When a complaint alleging possibly criminal behavior is sustained by either civilian review agencies or internal affairs units, it should be automatically forwarded to local and federal prosecutors for review. When a complaint is received by civilian review agencies or internal affairs unit alleging possibly criminal physical abuse involving injury, it should be forwarded at the time of its receipt to local and federal prosecutors for review.

  • Each police department should create a disciplinary matrix or table, describing the range of penalties that officers should expect for various offenses, whichshould assist in removing the broad discretion currently exercised by some police officials in applying discipline.

  • In some police departments, officers may not be disciplined if an investigation - by police personnel or a civilian review agency - take longer than a set period of time. In practice, abuse complaints have been sustained but officers have not been disciplined because of these statutes of limitations. These time limits should be removed or extended to reflect the amount of time investigations take; an arbitrary deadline should never be an excuse for allowing an officer who has committed a human rights violation to escape punishment.

  • Civilian, non-police personnel should be involved in internal disciplinary hearings. The presence of "outsiders" can provide both the appearance and substance of public accountability.

  • City governments must provide adequate legal resources to ensure that dismissals of officers by police departments are upheld. Arbitration and other procedures that, in practice, allow officers who have been found to engage in human rights violations or other misconduct to remain on the force should be revised to allow police chiefs, superintendents, or commissioners to fire officers who are deemed unsuitable for police work.

  • State "bills of rights" for law enforcement officers should be examined and revised to ensure that the protections they grant officers in disciplinary proceedings do not inappropriately undermine accountability efforts.

  • An internal investigation should be automatically triggered by the filing of a civil lawsuit alleging police abuse. If an internal investigation takes place and the complaint is not sustained, the investigation should be re-opened if a jury award or substantial settlement is made in favor of the complainant any evidence presented at the civil trial that was not considered by internal investigators. Once an internal affairs unit is notified about a lawsuit against an officer in its department, a notice should be sent to the plaintiff encouraging him or her to file a complaint with internal affairs if he or she has not already done so.

  • The use of chokeholds is prohibited by most of the police departments examined in this report and should be banned by all law enforcement agencies. The degree of precision necessary in applying chokeholds without causing severe injury or death, combined with variables that contribute to the likelihoodof injury or death that cannot be known immediately by the officer - including whether the arrestee is asthmatic, under the influence of particular drugs, or suffering from other pre-existing health problems - make chokeholds an unacceptable force option.

  • Enhanced training should be provided on situations that often lead to abuse. For example, officers should be fully trained on how properly to use pepper spray, how to deal in a non-violent way with mentally ill individuals, and how to handle post-chase apprehensions.

  • The effects of newer police weapon technology, such as pepper spray, should be fully studied before being made available for use by officers. In addition, officers should be trained to deal with the effects of these weapons, including providing prompt medical attention. Police administrators should create and enforce policies that fully protect the health and safety of individuals on whom these weapons are used.

  • In choosing trainers, complaint histories and allegations of any kind of misconduct should be considered; police departments should never choose police officers who have been involved in abusive behavior to serve as trainers.

  • Officers should be encouraged and trained to intercede when their partners or fellow officers threaten or begin to engage in abuse. When an arrest has been accompanied by any type of altercation - whether verbal or physical - between the arresting officer and arrestee, the arrestee should be processed at the station house by a different officer. Whether or not this type of "hand-off" takes place, it is essential that the identity of the arresting officer is included in the arrest report and other relevant documents.

  • Officers who are witness to, or responsible for, shooting another individual should be required to provide statements immediately to investigators, in compliance with appropriate due process guarantees and whether or not they consult with legal counsel; special provisions for days-long delays that are now permitted in at least one of the cities examined can serve to obstruct justice and should be eliminated. Such delays impede investigators and undermine police-community relations because they give the appearance of impropriety.

  • District attorneys' "roll-out teams," which respond to officer-involved shootings, should be created or, where they have been curtailed on budgetary grounds, reinstated. When district attorney's office personnel are on the sceneof a shooting, they should be permitted to interview the officers involved in the shooting before police department investigators compel statements from officers that are inadmissible in criminal proceedings.

  • Police departments should pay special attention to the "trilogy" of charges - resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, and assaulting an officer. Officers frequently use these charges against abuse complainants to cover up their own human rights violations. Police departments should determine whether certain officers are repeatedly using these allegations, particularly in the absence of underlying charges, in an effort to deter victims from pursuing complaints. If it is found that such charges are being applied to cover an officer's own abuses, the officer should be dismissed.

  • City solicitors, attorneys, or corporation counsels should be required to report any lawsuit involving a police officer to the relevant police department without delay.

  • Civil lawsuits should be paid from the police department's budget, not out of general city funds as is usually done. In this way, police departments would have a strong financial incentive to deal appropriately with officers who are frequently the subject of civil suits. Amounts, incidents, and trends in police misconduct lawsuits should be used in policy planning.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch