Police Violence Against Black Americans

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, the Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law, the International Human Rights Clinic at UVA School of Law, and Justin Hansford of the St. Louis University School of Law co-authored a submission to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the international human rights monitoring body for the Americas, examining the excessive and discriminatory use of force by police against Black Americans in the United States. The submission provides an overview of how certain policing laws, policies, and practices fall short of international standards and contravene the United States’ international human rights obligations.

The data on police violence in 2015 is stark. At least 1,140 people were killed by police in the United States in 2015, of whom at least 303, or 26.5%, were Black – a proportion roughly double Black Americans’ share of the national population. Among those people killed by the police, Black victims were more than twice as likely as white victims to have been unarmed at the time of their death. While discriminatory police violence is not a new phenomenon in the United States, reinvigorated protests and the organizing efforts of human rights defenders in the movement for Black lives and other community groups have thrust these ongoing injustices into the public eye.

The submission to the Inter-American Commission examines (1) how the existing U.S. legal framework governing the use of force by police falls short of international standards in ways that put Black Americans at a uniquely high risk of violence by the police; (2) how police training falls short of international standards, exacerbating the problem; (3) how police tactics, including “broken windows” policing, stop-and-frisk practices, and the increasing militarization of police departments, contravene international standards when they disproportionately target Black Americans; and (4) how structural deficiencies in the criminal justice system contribute to a culture of impunity and a lack of accountability for police killings of civilians, particularly Black Americans. Finally, the submission offers recommendations to the United States, grounded in international standards and human rights law.

An earlier version of this submission was presented at a Thematic Hearing before the Inter-American Commission on October 23, 2015, which featured testimony from individuals whose family members had been killed by police officers. (Watch a video of the Thematic Hearing.) The submission has been updated to reflect data and laws current through the end of 2015, and has been submitted to Commissioner Margarette May Macaulay, who assumed her new roles of Rapporteur on the Rights of Afro-descendants and against Racial Discrimination and Rapporteur for the United States of America at the Inter-American Commission in January 2016.

The co-authors also raised these issues in a prior submission to the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent, which conducted a site visit to the United States in January 2016. In its concluding report, the Working Group stated that it is “concerned about the alarming levels of police brutality and excessive use of lethal force by law enforcement officials committed with impunity,” and recommended “improving reporting of violations involving the excessive use of force and extra-judicial killings by the police, and ensur[ing] that reported cases of excessive use of force are independently investigated; that alleged perpetrators are prosecuted and, if convicted, punished with appropriate sanctions; that investigations are re-opened when new evidence becomes available; and that victims or their families are provided with remedy” and ensuring compliance with international standards on the use of force.

Submission Co-Authors:

Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights: Wade McMullen & Sandeep Prasanna

Global Justice Clinic at NYU School of Law: Nikki Reisch, Olivia Ensign, Fraser Grier, Blythe Hawthorne-Loizeaux, & Valeria Vegh Weis, with drafting assistance from Billie Dean Sasakamoose

International Human Rights Clinic at UVA School of Law: Nina Goepfert, Brooklynn Moore, & Rachel Ellen Simon

St. Louis University School of Law: Justin Hansford