They found not a single police department was operating under guidelines that are compliant with the minimum standards laid out under international human rights laws. The Chicago study underlines how far policing in America is adrift from international norms, making the US a lonely outlier on the world stage. Across Europe, policing policies are much more closely aligned with human rights directives. In Spain, for instance, officers have to use verbal cautions and fire warning shots before they are permitted to aim at anybody. Chokeholds have been banned in Europe for many years.
Among the failings identified by the law scholars, some police forces violate the requirement that lethal force should only be wielded when facing an immediate threat and as a last resort. Some departments allow deadly responses in cases of “escaping suspects”, “fugitives”, or “prevention of crime” – all scenarios that would be deemed to fall well outside the boundaries set by international law. The researchers from the law school’s international human rights clinic discovered that none of the 20 police departments were operating under state laws that were in accord with human rights standards.
“The fact that police forces in the biggest US cities don’t meet very basic human rights standards is deeply concerning,” said Claudia Flores, the clinic’s director.
The Chicago researchers conclude too much deadly discretion is given to police officers in the US. The use of force, they say, is a form of “state-sanctioned violence.”
When things go wrong, the Chicago study also found that police use-of-force policies fall woefully short on accountability. All 20 city forces were found to have internal systems for reporting the deployment of lethal force, but only two – Los Angeles and Chicago – require independent external investigations to be carried out in tune with international standards. Houston, San Antonio, San Diego, Austin, Indianapolis, Charlotte, Seattle and El Paso had no external reporting requirements.
Of the 20 cities, Indianapolis, in terms of the degree to which they comply with human rights laws, is at the bottom. The Indianapolis PD ranks so badly because it breaches international standards on numerous counts. It allows the use of lethal force to prevent a felony being carried out – without specifying what kind of felony. Its rules carry no mention of the need for force to be proportional to the danger. It also makes no requirement on police officers to apply an escalating set of measures before they reach the point of lethal force – Indianapolis only talks about issuing a “verbal warning, if feasible”.
The need for restrictions on police power has been recognized in international law for 40 years. Two basic human rights are involved: the right to life and personal security, and the right of freedom from discrimination. Those rights have also been enshrined in core United Nations standards. All 193 member nations of the UN, including the US, have signed up to a code of conduct for law enforcement officials adopted in 1979.