Jun 18 8:00 AM

US laws on lethal police tactics fail to meet world standard

People, like this demonstrator in New York City's Union Square, have organized against the use of deadly force by police — a practice Amnesty International says lags behind global norms.
Jewel Samad / AFP / Getty Images

Not a single US state has laws that meet international standards for when police can use deadly force against civilians, according to a new human rights report. The report, issued by Amnesty International, also found that all 50 U.S. states and Washington, D.C. lack any laws that mandate an official investigation following an officer-involved shooting that results in death. The findings, taken as a whole, paint local laws that govern when a police officer can use lethal force as either woefully inadequate or entirely absent.

The study, Deadly Force: Police Use of Force in the United States, comes at a time when police conduct is under more scrutiny than at any time in recent memory. The high-profile police killings of black Americans in Ferguson, Mo., Cleveland, Staten Island, N.Y., North Charleston, S.C. and Baltimore, and the ensuing demonstrations for justice, some of which organized under the banner “Black Lives Matter,” have resulted in nationwide calls for more accountability for law enforcement. 

“We hope it's propitious timing,” says Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International. “Our hope is the report will move for some much-needed reforms in state laws around the country.”

The Department of Justice doesn't keep annual data on the number of civilians killed by the police, so the true extent of the problem remains unknown. Media reports, however, have attempted to catalog those who have died in interactions with police this year. An investigation by the Washington Post last month found officers had killed an average of about two people per day in 2015.

The Amnesty report, however, is the first to look at the laws that govern when police can use deadly force. There is no federal law that limits police use of deadly force, which means that legal guidelines — when they exist — come either from local laws or court decisions. “What we found has been really shocking,” said Hawkins. He added that some states have absolutely no law “of any type talking about the basic rules of when it would be permissible for police to use lethal force.”

International law, as codified by the United Nations, dictates that officers can only use deadly force when either they, or bystanders, face an immediate threat of death or serious physical harm, and only then as a last resort. Yet, in the U.S., there is not a single state law that holds police to that standard. States give cops much greater leeway. “All state laws fail to meet international law and standards,” according to the report. “None of the laws establish the requirement that lethal force may only be used as a last resort with non-violent means and less harmful means to be tried first.”

The wide latitude officers are given in the decision to use deadly force in some cases is disturbing. For example, “[n]ine states provide law enforcement officers with authority to use lethal force to suppress a riot,” according to the report. Other states allow cops to use lethal force on a fleeing suspect believed to have committed a violent felony, even if there is no immediate risk of harm. Nine states don't have any law on the books restricting deadly force, leaving only court decisions to govern when officers are allowed to take potentially lethal action. 

Many local laws extend the power to justifiably take a life to people who aren't even members of law enforcement, but are acting on their behalf or at their direction. “Twenty states authorize private actors to use lethal force in assisting officers in making an arrest,” the report states. In April of this year, Tulsa, Oklahoma volunteer deputy Robert Bates — who some accounts refer to as a “pay to play” cop — shot and killed Eric Harris as he fled from police, the highest profile example of a private citizen using lethal force as he patrolled alongside actual officers.

Other laws don't even live up to the U.S.'s own Constitutional standards. According to the report, 13 states “have statutes that currently violate the U.S. Constitution by allowing officers to use lethal force to apprehend a felon even if the crime committed did not involve the infliction or threatened infliction of serious physical harm or the suspect does not pose a threat of death or serious injury to officers or the public.”

The report also concluded that the degree of discretion officers are given when it comes to using deadly force disproportionately affects African-Americans. “While blacks represent 13.2 per cent of the U.S. population, they represent 27.6 percent of the total deaths at the hands of police,” Amnesty wrote. And the problems of racist policing extend beyond unlawful killings. “The use of lethal force against people of color in the United States should be seen in the context of a wider pattern of racially discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers, including unjustified stops and searches, and racial profiling.”

In response to recent calls for accountability, President Barack Obama convened a taskforce to examine whether police departments face too little accountability and oversight. In May, the taskforce released their findings, which included recommendations for law enforcement to work with communities of color to address areas of potential improvement. Additionally, the Obama administration pledged to slow the militarization of police departments nationwide. Still, according to the report, more has to be done to affirmatively protect the lives of Americans from police misconduct.

“What you find is that a lot of individuals doing this work assume that laws are in place to protect them, when really they're not,” says Jamira Burley, senior campaigner at Amnesty. “So our goal is to make sure the U.S. is being held accountable at every level of government to protect individuals from police officers who are using deadly force.”

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