On the Streets of America: Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson

Report
October 24, 2014

On the Streets of America: Human Rights Abuses in Ferguson

"Every day that Michael Brown doesn't receive justice, we are reminded that it's open season on black lives in Ferguson. How are we supposed to live everyday knowing that and not go crazy?" - Anonymous protester

On August 9, 2014 Michael Brown, an 18-year old unarmed African American man, was fatally shot by a white Police Officer, Darren Wilson, in Ferguson, Missouri. Brown's death set off protests which, as of this publication, are ongoing, as well as a long-overdue conversation on race, policing and justice. The events in Ferguson have also raised a range of human rights concerns, including the right to life, the use of lethal force by law enforcement, the right to freedom from discrimination, and the rights to freedom of expression and assembly.

Following the initial protests, Amnesty International USA sent a delegation to Ferguson from Aug. 14-22. The delegation was composed of staff working with the community and protesters on non-direct action and de-escalation tactics in protests and other staff who were there strictly to observe and monitor the protests and police response. While gaining first hand testimony in the midst of the protests and marches proved difficult, the following findings rely on observations made by staff during this mission and is supplemented by information from media reports.

This briefing document outlines some of the human rights concerns witnessed by Amnesty International and a series of recommendations that need to be implemented with regards to the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers and the policing of protests.

Use of lethal force: Death of Michael Brown
On Saturday August 9, 2014, 18-year old Michael Brown and a friend were walking down Canfield Drive in Ferguson, MO when they were confronted by Officer Darren Wilson. Moments later, Brown was fatally shot by Police Officer Wilson. Michael Brown's body then lay on the street for at least four hours. According to the autopsy conducted by both the family and the County Medical Examiner's Office, Michael Brown was shot six times.

Due to conflicting reports, what happened between Brown and Wilson remains uncertain. According to one witness, Brown and his friend attempted to walk away when the officer fired his weapon, shooting the unarmed Brown, whose hands were in the air. According to police statements, a physical confrontation between the officer and Brown resulted in the officer shooting the unarmed Brown.

Regardless, international standards provide that law enforcement officers should only use force as a last resort and that the amount of force must be proportionate to the threat encountered and designed to minimize damage and injury. Officers may only use firearms when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. Even then, the intentional lethal use of firearms is justified only when "strictly unavoidable in order to protect life."

Irrespective of whether there was some sort of physical confrontation between Michael Brown and the police officer, Michael Brown was unarmed and thus unlikely to have presented a serious threat to the life of the police officer. As such, this calls into question whether the use of lethal force was justified, and the circumstances of the killing must be urgently clarified.

Also troubling is Missouri's broad statute on the use of deadly force. Amnesty International is very concerned that the statute may be unconstitutional and is clearly out of line with international standards on the intentional use of lethal force as it goes well beyond the doctrine that lethal force only be used to protect life.

Racial discrimination and excessive use of police force nationwide
The shooting of Michael Brown highlighted on a national level the persistent and widespread pattern of racially discriminatory treatment by law enforcement officers across the United States, including unjustified stops and searches, ill treatment and excessive, and sometimes lethal, use of force.

Learn More