US must tackle police brutality against Black people head-on, UN experts say
The US must move beyond piecemeal reform and slogan-making and tackle the ongoing scourge of police brutality and law enforcement’s discrimination against Black people, a United Nations mission has concluded at the end of a historic two-week tour of the country.
UN experts completed their first official visit to the US as part of a system of global inquiries set up by the human rights council after the police murder of George Floyd in May 2020. As they ended their tour on Friday in Washington DC, the experts called for a nationwide commitment to address discrimination suffered by Black Americans in their daily dealings with the law.
“In the US, racial inequity dates back to the very creation of this country and there’ll be no quick fixes,” said Dr. Tracie Keesee, one of two independent UN experts who conducted the visit. “To this day, racial discrimination permeates through encounters with law enforcement – from first contact, arrest, detention, sentencing and disenfranchisement.”
What was needed was a “whole government approach”, Keesee added. “This needs to be more than a slogan and calls for reform.”
In the course of their 15-day mission Keesee and Juan Méndez of Argentina, visited six US cities: Washington, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Minneapolis and New York. Their mission was to investigate excessive use of force, militarised policing, racial profiling and other human rights violations by law enforcement and penal agencies against Black Americans.
As they crisscrossed the country, the experts had emotional encounters with families of the victims of police killings and other law enforcement abuses. In Minneapolis, where a white police officer murdered George Floyd on 25 May 2020, the panel spent time with the mothers of Philando Castile and Amir Locke, who were also killed by law enforcement in the city.
Locke’s mother, Karen Wells, told the visiting experts: “You are probably wondering, why is there an empty chair right here? Because that’s where Amir should be sitting. All of the families now have an empty chair.”
Presenting their preliminary findings, Keesee said that they had witnessed a pattern that could be traced to what she called the “deep intrinsic legacy” of slavery and legalized discrimination. She said that across the country there remained “a lack of awareness and acknowledgment of the extent to which racial inequities” were still prevalent.
The result was a “culminating exhaustion in the Black community”, the UN expert said.
Méndez, a former UN special rapporteur on torture, said that he had been moved throughout the visit by the “harrowing pain of victims and their families, and the resounding calls for accountability”.
“We support those calls for accountability,” Méndez said.
He was heartened by successful prosecutions of police officers involved in high-profile killings such as that of Floyd. However, many more cases remained unresolved, suggesting a continuing degree of impunity.
Méndez added that their mission would be calling on the US justice department to make “more serious and proactive” use of its powers through consent decrees to intervene in the inner workings of local police departments to address some of the most egregious abuses. “More robust government action is needed,” he said.
The UN experts will present their final report to the human rights council in Geneva in September or October. They indicated that among the demands they are likely to make is a call for better nationwide data and record keeping.
In the absence of a national database, Méndez said, police officers who had complaints of misconduct or excessive force filed against them were allowed to continue serving, in some cases going on to be involved in killings of Black people. He added: “The mechanism also received allegations of police officers who were previously guilty and or disciplined for misconduct, afterwards being hired by a different police department.”
Among other likely demands signaled by the experts were:
A call for an end to racial profiling in policing.
A dramatic reduction in the use of solitary confinement in US jails and prisons, and the total abolition of isolated incarceration for children under 18.
Passage of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act which tackles racial bias and excessive use of force but which has stalled in Congress.
An end to stereotyping of Black women and girls as angry and “aged up”.
Rooting out of white supremacist law enforcement officers to ensure that they no longer wear the badge.
The completed visit marks an intensification in the UN’s focus on racial justice in America in the aftermath of the Floyd killing and the summer of protests it triggered across the US and around the world. A year after Floyd died, the then UN high commissioner for human rights, Michelle Bachelet, lamented what she called the “insufficient” steps taken in the US to “stop people of African descent from being killed”.
Fatal police shootings affecting all races and ethnicities have continued unabated since the summer of Black Lives Matter protests. The average still runs at a rate of almost three people daily.
In April 2021, the human rights council set up what it called the Expert Mechanism to Advance Racial Justice and Equality in law enforcement (EMLER). It is part of a network of independent UN experts and monitors used to cajole governments to do more to address human rights violations in their territories.
Though they have no powers to enforce their findings, UN experts have shown themselves able to profoundly influence domestic political debate, especially within the US. In June 2018, the Donald Trump White House’s then ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, pulled the US out of membership of the human rights council, complaining that it was a “cesspool of political bias”.
Haley, who is currently vying with Trump for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, made her move just days before the UN monitor on extreme poverty delivered a withering report on US deprivation after a similar two-week tour of the country. In October 2021, the Joe Biden White House reversed course, re-entering the US into the human rights council.
Keesee and Méndez’s visit has already sparked debate within the US over unaddressed police brutality. Minnesota’s Democratic congresswoman Ilhan Omar told the Guardian after the experts’ stopover in Minneapolis that “state-sanctioned violence” against Black people “continues to happen at the same rate, if not higher”.