#DearObama: Use Your State of the Union to Move from Words to Actions on Race and Policing

January 20, 2015

Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images

This blog is part of a series on human rights in the State of the Union address. The United States has an obligation to pursue policies that ensure respect for human rights at home and around the world. Follow along and join the conversation using #SOTUrights.

Dear Mr. President,

I call on you to use your State of the Union address to recommit to human rights standards in the criminal justice system, especially as it affects communities of color in the U.S.

The demand for an inclusive dialogue on race and policing has taken center stage following the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Gardner, Ezell Ford and Tamir Rice and the lack of accountability for the police officers responsible. Community members and leaders are calling for a comprehensive examination of police procedures and practices which directly or indirectly facilitate hostile interactions between police and the communities they are entrusted to protect.  

With protests taking place domestically and internationally, there is much concern that the tactics used to police demonstrations violate a number of human rights — including but not limited to, the rights to life, freedom from discrimination and freedom of expression and assembly — particularly for people and communities of color.

The United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcements Officials provides that law enforcement 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 use firearms as a last resort – when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against the imminent threat of death or serious injury. The intentional lethal use of firearms is justified only when “strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.

Unfortunately, policies on the use of force in the United States vary widely from both agency to agency and state to state, with many of them not meeting this international standard.

To your credit, you have recently issued an Executive Order calling for the creation of the Task Force on 21st Century Policing.  This Task Force is charged with identifying best practices and otherwise making recommendations to the President on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.

While this Task Force has potential to provide a legitimate space to advance a national conversation on race and policing in the U.S. that is so desperately needed, talking is only a first step. The greater test is what, if anything, the government commits to do to address these problems.

Amnesty International USA Executive Director Steven Hawkins recently submitted testimony to the Task Force, calling for federal, state and local authorities to “take immediate action” to “make clear that abuses including unnecessary or excessive force, torture or other ill-treatment by police officers will not be tolerated; that officers will be held accountable for their actions; and that those responsible for abuses will be brought to justice.” He laid out fourteen recommendations for aligning US policing practices with international human rights standards.

In your State of the Union address, I call on you to take meaningful steps to prevent and end racial discrimination and other human rights abuses in the criminal justice system, including by:

  • Advocating for adequate funding to enable the Justice Department to fulfill its mandate under the Police Accountability Act provisions of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 to pursue “pattern and practice” lawsuits against police agencies nationwide that commit abuses.
  • Making funding and mechanisms for accountability available for the Justice Department to compile and regularly publish detailed national data on police use of force (including all police fatal shootings and deaths in custody), with analysis of patterns of concern and policy recommendations.
  • Calling on all government agencies to step up efforts to eliminate racially discriminatory treatment, as authorized by Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; funding should be contingent upon agencies which engage in discriminatory practices taking effective steps to eliminate them.
  • Supporting passage by Congress of both the End Racial Profiling Act and the Stop Militarizing Law Enforcement Act.
  • Discussing racial discrimination within police practices and the criminal justice system.
  • Addressing the need to standardize police policies on the use of force, as outlined by the United Nations Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officers.

In addition to the systematic abuses within the U.S. criminal justice system, the government has an obligation to take reasonable measures to protect people from other forms of violence, whether committed by state or non-state actors. Gun violence has become an epidemic, and one that disproportionately affects communities already at greater risk of human rights abuses. African Americans represent nearly 13.6 percent of the American population but account for more than 55% of homicides with a gun. There are large racial disparities in homicide rates due to gun violence, particularly in urban and poor communities that are mostly populated by people of color. The gun-homicide rate for African Americans is disproportionately high; firearm homicide is the leading cause of death for ages 1-44, with almost half of all homicide victims being African American males between the ages of 14-25 years old.

And so Mr. President, if you care about the right to life and a person’s ability to move freely and safely throughout society, in your State of the Union address you will highlight the need for comprehensive gun reform and lay the framework for how we can make our schools and communities safer.

These conversations may be uncomfortable and the political landscape challenging, but the need for accountability at the federal (and state and local) levels is undeniable.

The continued violation of human rights can no longer be tolerated, Mr. President. The U.S. government has a duty to protect the rights of all people, regardless of what they look like or by whom their rights are violated. The movement to hold you and your government accountable for ending police abuses is not going away – it is growing. I hope that you will join our cause by speaking out on Tuesday night. I’ll be watching.

[i] Article 3, UN Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials (1979); Principle 9, U.N. Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.