Demonstrators gather at the Minnesota governor's mansion Monday, June 1, 2020, in St. Paul, Minn. Protests continued following the death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained by Minneapolis police officers on Memorial Day.  © 2020 Julio Cortez/AP Photo

(Washington, DC) – United States authorities should take bold steps to address the structural racism driving mass protests across the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

The national, state, and local governments should enact and enforce meaningful police accountability measures, drastically reduce unnecessary arrests, and end the use of police to address societal problems related to poverty and health, which disproportionately target black and brown people. Instead, they should invest in real support for communities in need and programs designed to counter long-term structural racism in multiple areas, such as health and education.

“The anger and frustration driving mass protests across the US is about more than the criminal actions of the police officers who killed George Floyd,” said Nicole Austin-Hillery, US program director at Human Rights Watch. “It is about a law enforcement system that does not value all people equally and sacrifices the lives and well-being of black people as a result.”

A video shows Minneapolis police officer, Derek Chauvin, killing George Floyd by pinning him to the ground and pressing his knee against Floyd’s neck on May 25, 2020 for more than eight minutes. Four days later, prosecutors charged Chauvin with third degree murder and second degree manslaughter and had him arrested, but they have not charged the other officers involved. The district attorney should immediately file charges against the other three officers involved in Floyd’s death, Human Rights Watch said.

Floyd’s death is the latest in a long history of killings of black people by police in the US with little or no accountability. In recent years, these include Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Alton Sterling, Delrawn Small, Terence Crutcher, Breonna Taylor, and many others. They also include killings of black men that prosecutors refused to properly investigate, like that of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man killed in February by two white men as Arbery was jogging in Georgia.

While killings captured on video like Floyd’s get extensive media coverage, police across the US use force and engage in abuse that do not cause death but are harmful and pervasive, especially toward black people, Human Rights Watch said. Studies show that police use force on black people at vastly higher rates than on white people, including tasers, dog bites, batons, punches, and kicks. Human Rights Watch investigations of the Tulsa, Oklahoma police department found that officers deployed tasers against black people at a rate almost 3 times as great as against white people and that black people were subjected to police violence 2.7 times as frequently.

Racial disparities in policing mirror entrenched racial disparities in many systems, including housing, education, and health care. Policymakers should address these underlying disparities with programs in all these areas that are specifically designed to counter the long-term effects of structural racism, Human Rights Watch said.

“It should not take the killing of a black man by police recorded on video to generate broad concerns about the mistreatment of black and brown people every day,” Austin-Hillery said. “The worst cases are just the tip of the iceberg of a system in which the racism is structural, not just cruel actions by bad cops.”

Abusive policing also includes unnecessary and harassing detentions and searches, often driven by racial bias. Numerous studies have revealed significant racial disparities in rates of police stops and searches. A recent survey found that 95 percent of US police departments arrested black people at higher rates than white people, some as much as 10 times as frequently.

Police detain and arrest people for conduct related to homelessness and poverty, like loitering and trespassing; for conduct that should not be criminalized at all, like the possession of drugs for personal use, or sex work; and for violations that should result in citations rather than custodial arrest.

As just one example, the police did not have to arrest Floyd for allegedly using a counterfeit US$20 bill. If the evidence called for it, the officers could have issued a summons.

Throughout the US, officials task police with responding to situations involving problematic substance use, homelessness, mental health issues, and poverty, rather than funding appropriate services to address these social problems outside a policing context. Governments should vastly reduce their reliance on police for these duties and instead invest in housing, affordable and accessible health care, economic development, and education – initiatives that directly address the problems – instead of criminalizing people in need.

The failure to prioritize and fund such direct solutions while prioritizing law enforcement and criminalizing poverty and society’s problems has for decades increased inequalities in US societies and harmed black, brown, and poor communities.

Concerned and frustrated people of all races have taken to the streets throughout the US to decry police violence and the inequalities that underlie it. Police have frequently met these protests with the unlawful use of force, resulting in escalation of conflict and physical injury.

Law and policy-makers in recent days have offered solutions such as more oversight, including new investigations of police abuse, and an end to qualified immunity – a legal doctrine that protects nearly all officers sued for abusive conduct from civil liability for that conduct. These important and overdue steps should be adopted, but it will take years for people in overpoliced communities to feel their impacts, if they ever do.

The proposals also do not address the fundamental problem, that state and local authorities employ too many police officers, who make unnecessary arrests in a misguided effort to solve societal problems with policing that should not be solved using a punitive, law enforcement approach, Human Rights Watch said.

Police also need to end the unlawful and unnecessary use of force against protesters. Posts on social media show police using vehicles to push back scores of people who appear to have been peacefully protesting behind barricades, knocking many over; pushing protesters to the ground; using tear gas indiscriminately and seemingly without cause; as well as firing pepper spray, rubber bullets, and flash-bang grenades.

One social media post shows police patrolling a seemingly quiet residential neighborhood in military gear with an armored vehicle. Following a command to “light ’em up,” an officer fires a projectile, directly hitting at least one resident on her own porch. On June 1, President Donald Trump deployed national guard troops, who used tear gas and flash-bang grenades to clear peaceful protesters in front of the White House so that he could have a photo-op in front of the church across nearby Lafayette Square.

The US Constitution and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which the US is a party, protect the rights to free expression and peaceful assembly. The covenant applies to the federal, state, and local governments. Law enforcement personnel are obligated to protect and uphold those fundamental rights.

Under the United Nations Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, law enforcement officials should as far as possible apply non-violent means before resorting to the use of force. Any use of force by law enforcement must be proportionate and should only be used if other measures to address a genuine threat have proved ineffective or have no likelihood of achieving the intended result. When using force, law enforcement should exercise restraint and act proportionately, taking into account both the seriousness of the offense and the legitimate objective to be achieved.

“It is unacceptable to meet protests against police violence and for racial equality with more police violence,” Austin-Hillery said. “Unless the US at all levels of government addresses the problems that have compelled people to take to the streets, righteous protest will continue to rage.”