Deadly Force: Police Use of Lethal Force In The United States

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June 18, 2015

Deadly Force: Police Use of Lethal Force In The United States

"States are required to respect and to protect the right to life... The police in any society will at some point be confronted with a situation where they have to decide whether to use force and, if so, how much. Enacting an adequate domestic legal framework for such use of force by police officials is thus a State obligation, and States that do not do this are in violation of their international obligations."

- UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions

The first step to securing the right to life, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions, is the establishment of an appropriate legal framework for the use of force by the police, which sets out the conditions under which force may be used in the name of the State and ensuring a system of responsibility where these limits are transgressed. Furthermore, the UN Special Rapporteur notes that, "The specific relevance of domestic law in this context stems from the fact that the laws of each State remain the first line and in many cases effectively the last line of defence for the protection of the right to life, given the irreversibility of its violation. National and local laws play an important role in defining the understanding by law enforcement officials and the population alike of the extent of the police powers, and the conditions for accountability. As such, there is a strong need to ensure that domestic laws worldwide comply with international standards. It is too late to attend to this when tensions arise."

Amnesty International reviewed US state laws - where they exist - governing the use of lethal force by law enforcement officials and found that they all fail to comply with international law and standards. Many of them do not even meet the less stringent standard set by US constitutional law. Some state laws currently allow for use of lethal force to "suppress opposition to an arrest"; to arrest someone for a "suspected felony"; to "suppress a riot or mutiny"; or for certain crimes such as burglary. A number of statutes allow officers to use lethal force to prevent an escape from a prison or jail. Others allow private citizens to use lethal force if they are carrying out law enforcement activities. Amnesty International found that:

  • All 50 states and Washington DC fail to comply with international law and standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers;
  • Nine states and Washington DC currently have no laws on use of lethal force by law enforcement officers; and
  • Thirteen states have laws that do not even comply with the lower standards set by US constitutional law on use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.

Many of the nationwide protests in the wake of recent police killings have demanded accountability and international law requires it. All cases of police use of lethal force must be subject to an independent, impartial and transparent investigation and if the evidence indicates that the killing was unlawful, the police officer responsible should be criminally prosecuted. However, accountability for police use of lethal force is severely lacking in the United States. The officer's own police agency usually conducts the investigation before handing the case over to the local prosecutor for review, who, depending on the jurisdiction, either convenes a grand jury or decides directly whether to file charges against the officer. The fact that investigations are handled internally and that prosecutors have to maintain good working relationships with the police as well as fulfill their duty to investigate and prosecute police use of lethal force, has led to calls being made for independent investigations and prosecutors. While this report only examines whether specific accountability measures are provided for in a state's use of lethal force statute, Amnesty International has previously documented concerns with oversight mechanisms in the United States and the need for independent and effective oversight bodies to be established.

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