Protecting lives must come first in law enforcement

Police action in response to indigenous protests is increasingly under scrutiny in South Africa.
Inter Press Service / Thapelo Lekgowa

LONDON, Sep. 7, 2015 (IPS) – Everyone has the right to life. This principle is enshrined in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and appears in numerous international treaties and national laws.

Yet this notion was sorely absent the day police fatally shot Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy, in a public park in broad daylight.

From the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to the favelas of Brazil, police use of force and firearms often makes global headlines when it turns fatal.

On Nov. 22, 2014, police in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S., responded to an emergency call about an unidentified male standing in a local park and pointing a gun at people. It is unclear if the responding police officers were aware of the caller’s tip that the weapon was “probably fake”, or if they knew the alleged gunman was only a child.

Within two seconds of stepping out of his police car, one of the officers shot Tamir Rice from just metres away. A surveillance video later released by police shows how the young boy was fatally wounded in the blink of an eye. He died later in hospital.

A judge who reviewed the actions of the two police officers involved wrote that, having watched the surveillance video of the incident several times, he was “still thunderstruck by how quickly this event turned deadly”. He found probable cause for the officer who pulled the trigger to face murder charges.

Nobody is disputing that police are faced with challenging, and often dangerous, situations. The power to use force is indispensable for police to carry out their duties, but that does not mean it is an inevitable part of the job – in fact, the underlying principle of the international standards for policing is not to use force unless it is really necessary.

Those standards, the UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms, spell out for police when force can legitimately be used.

What the Tamir Rice case shows is that in the U.S., as in many other countries, police often fall short of this mark. This tragic reality has been highlighted time and again, including the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the series of protests it unleashed.

From the streets of Ferguson, Missouri to the favelas of Brazil, police use of force and firearms often makes global headlines when it turns fatal.

In countless other cases, including in response to demonstrations, police are too quick to use force instead of seeking peaceful conflict resolution. They deploy tear gas, rubber bullets and other weapons in arbitrary and abusive ways or use excessive force, causing serious casualties, including killing and maiming people, often with little or no accountability.

Killings by police in Brazil have disproportionately impacted young black men. Numerous police shootings in the U.S. have resulted in the death of unarmed people, likewise with a disproportionate impact on African American males. In Bangladesh, special police forces have carried out heavy-handed police operations with lethal force, resulting in the deaths of many people.

And in countries including Bahrain, Burundi, Cambodia, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Venezuela and Ukraine, serious casualties have resulted from police use of tear gas, rubber bullets and other means of force, sometimes even firearms, during public assemblies.

In cases such as these, governments and law enforcement authorities frequently fail to create a framework to ensure that police only use force lawfully, in compliance with human rights and as a last resort. Killings and serious injuries are frequently the price of this failure.

This is due to a variety of reasons, including domestic laws that contradict international human rights obligations, deficient internal regulations, inadequate training and equipment, lack of command control and the absence of accountability for police who act outside the law.

To tackle this problem head-on, Amnesty International has published a new set of Guidelines on police use of force, timed to coincide with the 25th anniversary of the UN Basic Principles being adopted. Drawing on examples from 58 countries in all regions of the world, their detailed conclusions and recommendations are meant to support government authorities to implement the UN Basic Principles and ensure good, effective, human rights-compliant policing.

In certain limited circumstances, police can and will need to use force to maintain law and order. But this must respect strict rules and may never be seen as a licence to kill, nor as granting immunity to police officials.

Nobody is above the law, least of all those who have a duty to uphold it.

Dr. Anja Bienert is with Amnesty International Netherlands’ Police and Human Rights Programme

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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