United States: UN Human Rights Mechanism Finds Excessive Force, Racism in Policing

A new report from the UN “George Floyd Mechanism” highlights the damage caused when police use excessive force or misuse crowd-control weapons, two areas PHR has researched extensively. We endorse the Mechanism’s findings and urge the United States to adopt its recommendations at the federal, state, and local levels.

More than three years after the Black Lives Matter movement swept the United States and brought renewed attention to racial injustice, a UN human rights monitoring mechanism has issued a groundbreaking new report about excessive use of force and racism in policing. The report from the Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in Law Enforcement (EMLER), commonly referred to as the “George Floyd Mechanism,” lays out a detailed review of how systemic racism and inequality lead to harmful practices in law enforcement and the criminal justice system that disproportionately affect people of color across the United States.

What is the Mechanism?

The “George Floyd Mechanism” was established in December 2021 by the United Nations Human Rights Council in part as a response to the tragic murder of George Floyd in 2020 and the subsequent public calls to address systemic racism in law enforcement globally. Headed by commissioners Justice Yvonne Mokgoro (chair), Dr. Tracie L. Keesee, and PHR board member Professor Juan E. Méndez, the Mechanism is tasked with advocating for racial justice and equality in law enforcement, investigating governments’ responses to peaceful anti-racism protests, and ensuring accountability for victims of structural racism.

The commissioners completed their first country visit to the United States in May 2023, during which they met with community organizations and civil society in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Minneapolis, New York City, and Washington, D.C. The Mechanism’s visit and recently published report are important steps to promote criminal justice and racial justice reform by investigating the root causes and effects of systemic racism in U.S. law enforcement. This was the Mechanism’s first in-depth study of U.S. law enforcement practices, state laws, and other policies, and can serve as a basis for reform.  

The report from the “George Floyd Mechanism,” lays out a detailed review of how systemic racism and inequality lead to harmful practices in law enforcement and the criminal justice system that disproportionately affect people of color across the United States.

Key Conclusions from the U.S. Country Report

  • The report speaks extensively about the need to demilitarize police departments and reduce excessive use of force, especially against protestors. As noted by the Mechanism, during the 2020 protests, law enforcement “confronted peaceful manifestations with riot gear as a first level response, rather than only in response to specific incidents of violence.” PHR’s report “Shot in the Head” was cited as evidence of the unjustified level of force used against peaceful protestors in violation of human rights law.
  • The Mechanism encourages law enforcement to “reimagine policing practices” by adopting a human rights approach. According to the Mechanism, “this approach provides a framework for law enforcement institutions to build public trust and ensures confidence in the commitment of public officials to respect and protect the communities they serve.” The report lists several alternative methods that law enforcement can use in situations that have resulted in killings by police, noting that 59 percent of all killings by police in 2022 involved interactions at traffic stops, responding to mental health crises, or situations with people not alleged to be threatening others with a gun.
  • The Mechanism calls on state and local governments to develop policies and oversight institutions for investigating and ensuring accountability for abuses by law enforcement. The Mechanism found that in the United States, “only 1.9% of all killings by police in the last decade resulted in police officers being charged with a crime.” The commissioners voiced concerns that police officers found responsible for misconduct have been able to assume posts in other agencies. The report also called for improvements to the reparations process for victims of police violence.
  • The Mechanism also calls on law enforcement to address the ramifications of racial bias in police interactions that lead to over-incarceration and racial disparities. The report notes that the United States imprisons more people than nearly every other UN Member State and that “Black people are the most incarcerated and most criminally supervised persons in the United States.” According to a U.S. Department of Justice special report cited by the Mechanism, Black people were three times more likely to experience the threat of force, three times more likely to be shouted at by police, and 11 times more likely to experience police misconduct than white people in 2020. Similarly, Black people were four and a half times more frequently incarcerated, nearly three times more often under probation or parole, and more than three times more likely to experience criminal supervision than white people in the United States in 2021. “More than one out of six men of African descent between the ages of 25 and 54 years old are missing from daily life.”
  • The Mechanism joins other UN special procedures in stating that “the ‘war on drugs’ has been more effective as a system of racial control than as a tool to reduce drug markets.” Black people are more impacted by the use of military equipment in drug related raids, even though people of all races use and sell drugs at similar rates.
  • Lastly, the Mechanism expressed grave concern about practices in places of detention. For instance, the commissioners received firsthand testimony from pregnant women who had been shackled during labor, some of whom lost their babies due to the restraints. Solitary confinement is also a commonly used practice – an estimated 80,000 prisoners are held in isolated confinement in the United States on any given day. This worsens the mental health of detainees and can amount to torture in severe cases. Finally, the report condemned the use of unpaid and poorly paid forced prison labor for its role in perpetuating slavery into the present day. As the Mechanism emphasized, these practices are an affront to human dignity and violate the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Nelson Mandela Rules).

“Only 1.9% of all killings by police in the last decade resulted in police officers being charged with a crime.”

PHR’s Concerns

PHR welcomes the work of the Mechanism as a vital forum for raising multiple concerns about racism and policing in the United States.

For instance, as noted by the “George Floyd Mechanism”, PHR has long condemned U.S. police departments’ use of policies that are rooted in systemic racism. One of these policies, the concept of “excited delirium,” was found by PHR to be an invalid medical diagnosis steeped in racist tropes that has become a catch-all explanation to explain and often excuse deaths in police custody. Nonetheless, physicians serving as legal defense experts or researchers for law enforcement agencies continue to use this medically baseless term, such as in the deaths of Daniel Prude, Elijah McClain, and Manuel Ellis. The last major medical association to support the concept, the American College of Emergency Physicians, recently publicly disavowed the term, and the state of California banned its use in death certificates and autopsy reports, police reports, and civil litigation, after concerted advocacy efforts from PHR, victims’ families, and many others.

PHR is also encouraged by the Mechanism’s condemnation of excessive force and misuse of crowd-control weapons by police departments in response to the 2020 George Floyd protests. PHR conducted several investigations about the unlawful use of force against peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors in New York City, Portland, and across the country; one of our investigations led to the establishment of a community reparations fund in New York City. PHR and INCLO also published an updated report on the health and human rights impacts of crowd-control weapons globally and offered recommendations for their safe use and accountability for abuses.

We also believe that the Mechanism can use its position to speak more generally about how criminalization of any form disproportionately affects Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). As noted in our recent report on abortion bans in Oklahoma, abortion criminalization exacerbates health inequalities and is more likely to target BIPOC communities for detention and other penalties.

What’s Next

We encourage the “George Floyd Mechanism” to express its concern publicly about “excited delirium” to challenge the unscientific and racist legal defenses used to create impunity for killings by police.

Building on the findings of the report, U.S. lawmakers can combat structural racism and promote accountability for police abuses by passing the “End Racial and Religious Profiling Act”; ensuring better implementation of the “Death in Custody Reporting Act” of 2013; and creating an effective nationwide data base of people under investigation or found guilty for police misconduct. Law enforcement agencies should adopt a human rights-based approach to policing that limits the use of force and crowd-control weapons; strictly regulates practices in detention facilities like solitary confinement; and implements processes to prevent impunity for police misconduct.

PHR also joins the international Alliance for Torture-Free Trade in calling for the negotiation and adoption of a legally binding Torture Free Trade Treaty. As outlined in the UN Group of Governmental Expert’s 2022 report and reinforced days ago by the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture in her report to the UN General Assembly, such a treaty would help ban the trade and manufacturing of inherently abusive law enforcement equipment and regulate equipment that can be used to torture. We hope that the “George Floyd Mechanism” will voice public support for this initiative as well, and that the US government will robustly advance the effort as a member of the Alliance.

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