From the streets of Minneapolis to the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, unlawful use of force by police can end in death, injury, and devastation.
As we’ve seen too many times, in the USA and elsewhere, sometimes police kill or seriously injure people during arrests fuelled by racism.
In countless other cases, police are quick to use force in response to protests or demonstrations. Throughout 2019 and 2020, Hong Kong police have repeatedly deployed weapons like tear gas and rubber bullets in an unlawful way against protesters.
All too often, officers who kill or injure people after using force unlawfully are not brought to justice.
That’s why it’s so important to know what your rights are, and to know what police are, and aren’t, allowed to do.
We need to make sure that police stop using force against the law, and that those who kill unlawfully are brought to account – no more excuses.
What is “police brutality”?
The term “police brutality” is sometimes used to refer to various human rights violations by police. This might include beatings, racial abuse, unlawful killings, torture, or indiscriminate use of riot control agents at protests.
Why is police brutality a human rights issue?
At its worst, unlawful use of force by police can result in people being deprived of their right to life. If police force is unnecessary or excessive, it may also amount to torture or other ill-treatment.
Unlawful force by police can also violate the right to be free from discrimination, the right to liberty and security, and the right to equal protection under the law.
Are police allowed to kill people?
There are strict international laws and standards governing how and when police can use force – particularly lethal force.
The UN Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials (BPUFF) is the key international instrument that deals with police use of force.
The most important thing to remember is this: it is the utmost obligation of state authorities, including police, to respect and protect the right to life.
Under international law, police officers should only ever use lethal force as a last resort. This means when such force is strictly necessary to protect themselves or others from the imminent threat of death or serious injury, and only when other options for de-escalation are insufficient.
Many killings by the police that we have seen around the world clearly do not meet this criteria.
In the USA, George Floyd, Michael Brown, Breonna Taylor, Eric Garner and too many other Black people who have been killed by police were unarmed.
During protests in Iran in November 2019, police shot and killed hundreds of protesters who posed no risk, including at least 23 children.
And in the Philippines, witnesses have described seeing police shoot poor people who were suspected of using or selling drugs as they were on the ground begging for mercy.
What about national laws?
All governments have a duty to incorporate international human rights law into their domestic legislation, but many have failed to do this adequately.
For example, Mexico’s new National Law on the Use of Force does not limit use of lethal force to situations where it is necessary to protect the lives of others. It does not require that officers use the minimum level of force to resolve a situation.
In the USA, nine states have no laws at all on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.
Often countries shut down the doors of justice domestically and victims have to rely on international tribunals to seek truth, justice and reparations.
In 2011, Amnesty raised concerns about the lack accountability in France for the deaths in custody of Ali Ziri, Mohammed Boukrourou, Lamine Dieng, Abou Bakari Tandia and Abdelhakim Ajimi, all men from ethnic minority backgrounds. After struggling to get justice in France, three of these cases were referred to the European Court of Human Rights, which has so far found that French police violated Ali Ziri’s right to life, and that their treatment of Mohammed Boukrourou constituted inhuman and degrading treatment.
What causes police brutality?
In countries with high rates of killings by police, there is often a combination of factors including inadequate laws, racial or other forms of discrimination, insecurity or conflict, and entrenched impunity.
Governments who routinely trample on other human rights like freedom of expression and peaceful assembly often authorize heavy-handed police responses to protests and demonstrations. We’ve seen this recently in Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Hong Kong and Nicaragua.
Impunity for killings by police often leads to a deadly cycle of violence. In Brazil for example, officers routinely kill people who pose no threat – mostly young Black men – safe in the knowledge that these killings are rarely investigated or prosecuted.
How many people have died at the hands of the police?
It’s hard to get reliable figures on killings by police because many governments do not collect or publish this data.
The Small Arms Survey says that in each year between 2007 and 2012, an estimated 19,000 people were killed during ‘legal interventions’ (encounters with police).
Most of the available data refers to specific countries or time periods, and are often estimates by NGOs or human rights groups.
Here are some examples:
- In 2019 police in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, killed 1,810 people – an average of five per day
- In 2019, Kenyan police killed 122 people
- Between October 2019 and January 2020, police in Iraq killed around 600 protesters
- Between 2015 and 2018, over 500 people were fatally shot by the police in Jamaica, and over 300 shot and injured
- Around 1000 people are killed by police in the USA every year.
Police and Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment: Jerryme Corre
Public transport driver Jerryme Corre suffered shocking torture at the hands of Philippine National Police, after they accused him of killing a police officer.
He told Amnesty that, after his arrest, the officers “kicked and punched me on the sides, neck, stomach and knees”. Then they blindfolded him, handcuffed his ankles, and beat him throughout the night, hitting the soles of his feet with a wooden baton.
If Jerryme couldn’t answer their questions, they punched him. They put a cloth over his mouth and poured water down his throat “until I felt like I was drowning”. Later, when he still refused to confess, they took exposed electric wires and electrocuted him on his back, side and thighs. Then they threatened to kill him.
As they tried to force a confession, the officers repeatedly called him ‘Boyet’. He told them this wasn’t his name, and a local village official also told them they had the wrong man. They refused to listen, and eventually charged Jerryme with possessing drugs.
In March 2018, Jerryme Corre has finally been released.
Nobody is above the law – especially those who have a duty to uphold it.
All cases of police use of lethal force should be subject to a thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigation and if the evidence indicates that the killing was unlawful, the police officer responsible should be criminally prosecuted.
But Amnesty has documented how police officers who unlawfully kill or injure people often get away with it.
There are lots of reasons why this happens. In some cases, police and security forces threaten the judiciary, witnesses or survivors, pressuring them to drop charges. Other times, there are laws enacted to provide the police with immunity or otherwise obstruct justice, even if they act against the law – in Brazil for example.
In the Philippines, President Duterte ordered police forces to kill anyone they believe to be connected to the drugs trade when he assumed office in June 2016 and pledged to protect security forces from prosecution. When the President sanctions murder and promises immunity, accountability is almost impossible.
Governments have an obligation to ensure that everyone can enjoy the right to freedom of peaceful assembly, including through protests.
There are clear international guidelines for police conduct during protests:
- It is the role of police to facilitate peaceful protests. If tensions arise, they have a duty to de-escalate them.
- If some protestors engage in violent actions, this does not turn the otherwise peaceful protest into a non-peaceful assembly. Police should ensure those who remain peaceful can continue protesting.
- Acts of violence by a small minority do not justify indiscriminate use of force.
- If use of force is unavoidable to secure the safety of others, police must use the minimum force necessary
- The decision to disperse a protest must be a last resort – when all other less restrictive means have proven to be unsuccessful.
- Tear gas or water cannons to disperse a protest should only be used if people can leave the scene. They may only be used in response to widespread violence and where more targeted means have failed to contain the violence.
- Firearms should NEVER be used to disperse a crowd.
Every country has its own domestic laws and there is no one-size-fits-all prescription for making them fairer and safer.
Amnesty International’s detailed guidelines on the use of force by law enforcement set out clearly how police and other security forces around the world can improve their laws, policies and practices.
Some of the key recommendations are:
- The power of the police to resort to the use of force and firearms must be adequately regulated by law
- The “protect-life” principle must be enshrined in law – lethal force may only be used for protecting against an imminent threat of death or serious injury
- Where use of force by the police has resulted in injury or death, there must be a prompt, thorough, independent, and impartial investigation. Those responsible must be brought to justice in fair trials
- During protests, police should be guided by their duty to facilitate peaceful assemblies, and their starting point should not be the use of force
- People in detention have the same rights as everybody else when it comes to lethal force