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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(1) The federal government should provide timely and thorough reports in compliance with its human rights treaty obligations, should disseminate information to state and local entities regarding U.S. obligations under international human rights law, and should cooperate with international human rights investigators in a manner consistent with its obligations.

  • The United States is obliged to submit periodic reports to the U.N. Human Rights Committee, the Committee against Torture, and the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, due to its ratification of these international instruments. To date, its reporting has been incomplete (in the case of the Human Rights Committee) or more than two years overdue (in the case of the other two committees). In the future, reporting could be made more responsive through better data collection, more candid descriptions of continuing shortcomings, and, perhaps most importantly, political will to compile timely and thorough reports.

  • The federal government has a duty to disseminate information to state and local entities regarding U.S. obligations under international human rights treaties to which it is party. So far, no such efforts have been undertaken in a serious or consistent manner. The federal government must disseminate this information without delay.

  • When Special Rapporteurs or other U.N. investigators conduct missions in the United States, relevant U.S. officials at all levels should assist them by providing information requested, arranging meetings with officials at all levels of government involved in police accountability issues, and studying the U.N. reports once released, including their recommendations. Specifically, local and federal officials should review the report released in April 1998 by the U.N. Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions. He investigated killings by police and raised concerns regarding the absence of national data on this issue, the poor quality of some investigations of killings by police, and the low rate of criminal prosecution in cases of police abuse resulting in death. The Special Rapporteur recommended: enhanced training on international standards on law enforcement and human rights; independent investigations of deaths in custody; and the use of special prosecutors.

(2) The federal government should compile and publish relevant, nationwide statistical data on police abuse, to inform its own policymaking, to maintain oversight of local data-collection, and to facilitate monitoring by both governmental and nongovernmental entities.

  • The Justice Department should provide an annual report on the number of complaints alleging human rights violations against police officers received and investigated, and the number of officers indicted or convicted under the federal criminal civil rights statutes. The report should contain an analysis of such issues as official acts of racial discrimination, trends in types of abuse, difficulties in prosecuting cases, and sources of information.

  • The Justice Department should compile data on the excessive-use-of-force and produce an annual report on this topic, as instructed by Congress in 1994. Pilot surveys and preliminary reports released by the Justice Department so far have not yielded useful information on this topic. The data compilation should include information provided by citizen review agencies or mechanisms, and civil rights groups, rather than the current project's reliance on police departments to report voluntarily. As conducted so far, this project is unresponsive to Congress's instructions. The Civil Rights Division shouldprovide additional oversight and guidance, and reallocate the Justice Department's grants to ensure that this congressional mandate is fulfilled.

  • Congress should withhold federal grants intended for police departments that have failed to provide data on the use of excessive force. Congress, which has reportedly failed to provide adequate funding for data compilation on police use of excessive force should do so without delay, provided that the research projects are refocused to fulfill the congressional mandate. Members of Congress should also monitor the Justice Department's efforts to compile these data and insist that use of excessive force data be produced immediately.

  • Under new authority, the Civil Rights Division's Special Litigation Section may bring "pattern or practice" lawsuits against abusive police forces. To date there has been no comprehensive public report on the investigations or lawsuits undertaken. The Justice Department's report on use of excessive force, or a separate report released by the Civil Rights Division, should include: information on the police departments examined by the Civil Rights Division; the findings of these investigations; cooperation with local attorneys or civil rights groups supplying information to Justice Department about the police force; the status of the police departments' compliance with reforms requested by the Justice Department to avoid a lawsuit; and consent decrees reached or injunctions filed prohibiting abusive treatment. Any progress in police department compliance with consent decrees or other agreements should be noted, as should the methodology employed to monitor compliance. Further, the report should identify the reasons for the examination of a particular city's police department. Without widespread dissemination of information about consent decrees reached, the positive aspects of the agreements are undermined and, absent information to the contrary, the public presumes the Justice Department is not living up to its obligations. Moreover, the public has a right to know how the Justice Department is using its new civil powers.

  • The Justice Department should monitor and encourage local data collection efforts, to ensure that public access to useful, relevant data is maximized and to guarantee that federal policy can be made on the basis of sound assessments of the incidence and characteristics of police brutality.

  • The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights publishes periodic reports on police brutality in particular cities and regions. We urge additional funding for the commission to enhance its ability to hold public hearings, produce useful and timely reports, and make and monitor reform recommendations.

(3) Civilian review agencies, police departments' internal affairs units, city governments, and local prosecutors should regularly publish reports on their activities in relation to human rights violations committed by law enforcement officers. Where this requires additional funding, that funding should be provided; under-funding is no excuse for ignoring this responsibility to provide information to the public.

  • Citizen review agencies should publish reports, at least annually, presenting detailed statistics and information relating to complaints, trends, sustained rates for each type of complaint, disciplinary actions stemming from sustained allegations, policy recommendations (as well as the departmental responses to those recommendations), and community outreach efforts. The statistics should include breakdowns on the race and gender of the complainants and officers in question. The reports should also include examples of the types of abuse about which the agency has received complaints during the reporting period.

  • In those cities where the citizen review agency has been provided with a mandate that clearly precludes its intended, effective review of police practices, these mandates should be revised.

  • Review agencies should not limit themselves to handling individual complaints they have received, but should be empowered and financed to conduct investigations on their own initiative.

  • Review agencies are in a unique position to observe types of complaints of abuse and shortcomings of the police departments they monitor. For this reason, they should provide policy recommendations to the relevant police department.

  • Citizen review agencies should be automatically notified of the filing of civil lawsuits alleging police abuse, and should send the plaintiff information regarding his or her right to file a complaint with the review agency.

  • Police departments should eliminate the secrecy surrounding their handling of abuse allegations that is not directly and narrowly necessary to provide due-process protection for allegedly abusive police officers. Police are accountable to the public and must demonstrate that their practices and policies are adequate and conform to human rights standards. Police departments that claim to handle officers suspected of committing human rights violations appropriately should provide evidence in this regard to the public, either through regular publicreporting or improved responsiveness to requests for information. Police departments should provide a report, respecting privacy concerns, describing at least the number of officers disciplined, the offenses leading to punishment, and the types of punishment, over a set time period. Such a report should also include the names and number of officers indicted or convicted during the reporting period, and the charges brought against them; this information should never be withheld. District attorneys and federal prosecutors should provide information to the police department regarding the status of criminal charges against officers on the relevant police force.

  • Local prosecutors should maintain a list, available to the public upon request, of law enforcement officers who have been arrested, indicted, or convicted. The vast majority of the district and county attorneys queried by Human Rights Watch did not acknowledge maintaining such a list. Without such tracking, there is no way for federal prosecutors to know whether local prosecutors are handling sensitive police brutality cases appropriately and whether they should initiate federal investigations. It also leaves the public without basic information about the nature of the police force sworn to protect and serve it.

  • Nationwide, systematic data should be kept on the number and nature of civil lawsuits alleging police abuse, and how much is paid in each jurisdiction. As a start, cities should begin to publish reports on civil lawsuits, with descriptions of allegations, amounts paid through settlements or after a jury trial, and how the police department dealt with the officer named in each suit leading to significant settlements or jury awards, whether through retraining, counseling, or disciplinary sanctions.

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© June 1998
Human Rights Watch