US fails to meet international standards on the use of lethal force by police

Amnesty International USA
Press Release
June 18, 2015

Amnesty International Report Finds That All 50 States Fail to Meet International Standards on the Use of Lethal Force by Police

A new report by Amnesty International USA finds that all 50 states and the District of Columbia fail to comply with international standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers, which require that lethal force should only be used as a last resort when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against imminent threat of death or serious injury.

Deadly Force: Police Use of Lethal Force in the United States calls for reform at the state and federal levels to ensure that laws are brought into line with international law and standards.

“Police have a fundamental obligation to protect human life. Deadly force must be reserved as a method of absolute last resort,” said Steven W. Hawkins, executive director of Amnesty International USA. “The fact that absolutely no state laws conform to this standard is deeply disturbing and raises serious human rights concerns.

“Reform is needed and it is needed immediately. Lives are at stake.”

The report is based on a review of the use of force statutes within the United States. Amnesty International reviewed relevant U.S. Supreme Court decisions, the Department of Justice guidelines on the use of deadly force, and available statistical data, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the FBI Uniform Crime Reports.

In addition to finding that all state laws are overly broad and allow for police to justifiably use force in a wide range of circumstances, failing to meet international standards, thirteen states also fail to meet the lower standards set by U.S. constitutional law on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers.

Nine states and the District of Columbia have no laws on the use of lethal force, including Maryland Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

The report also found that none of the states’ use of lethal force statutes include accountability mechanisms and that statutes that are overly broad and allow for the use of lethal force outside the strict criteria set by international law contribute to a cycle of impunity that prevents holding law enforcement officers accountable.

At present, there are no official national statistics tracking police use of force, including police-related deaths or injuries in the United States. Estimates of people killed annually by law enforcement range from 400 to 1000. According to the limited government data available, African Americans are disproportionately affected by the use of lethal force. The African American population of the U.S. is 13 percent but makes up 27 percent of those killed by law enforcement.

The report calls for the Department of Justice to collect and publish statistics and data on police shootings and to sort the data by race, gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and indigenous status.

“A nationwide review of lethal force laws, policies and training is urgently needed,” said Hawkins. “We are calling on the president and the Department of Justice to create a national task force to carry out this review and institute comprehensive reforms, including of oversight and accountability mechanisms. If the United States is to comply with its international legal obligations, these policies must be brought in line with international standards.”

Key findings of the report include:

  • All 50 states and DC fail to comply with international standards on the use of lethal force by law enforcement officers, which require that lethal force should only be used as a last resort when strictly necessary to protect themselves or others against imminent threat of death or serious injury.
  • None of the state statutes require that the use of lethal force may only be used as a last resort with non-violent and less harmful means to be tried first.
  • No state limits the use of lethal force to only those situations where there is an imminent threat to life or serious injury to the officer or to others.
  • Nine states and the District of Columbia have no laws on use of lethal force. (Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin, Wyoming)
  • Thirteen states have laws that do not comply with U.S. constitutional standards on use of lethal force. (Alabama; California; Delaware; Florida; Mississippi; Missouri; Montana; New Jersey; New York; Oregon; Rhode Island; South Dakota; and Vermont)
  • Nine states allow lethal force to suppress a riot. (Arizona, Delaware, Idaho, Mississippi, Nebraska, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Vermont and Washington)
  • Twenty-two states allow for law enforcement officers to kill someone trying to escape from a prison or jail, regardless of whether or not they pose a threat. (Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kentucky, Maine, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota and Washington)
  • Only eight states require a verbal warning be given before law enforcement uses lethal force. (Connecticut, Florida, Indiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Tennessee, Utah and Washington)
  • Only three states mandate officers be careful of bystanders when using law enforcement. (Delaware, Hawaii and New Jersey)
  • Twenty states allow citizens to use lethal force if they carry out law enforcement activities, such as assisting an officer with an arrest. (Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Mississippi, Nebraska, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Texas and Washington)
  • Zero states have a provision in the state law on police use of lethal force that establishes specific accountability mechanisms for the use of lethal force by officers, such as obligatory reporting that a firearm has been used or that there be a prompt, thorough, independent and impartial investigation with a view to prosecution.

Key Recommendations

  • All state legislatures should introduce or amend statutes that authorize the use of lethal force to ensure that they are in line with international standards by limiting the use of lethal force by law enforcement to those instances in which it is necessary to protect against the threat of death or serious injury. The statutes should be brought into compliance with the U.N. Code of Conduct for Law Enforcement Officials and the Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials.
  • The president and Department of Justice should support the creation of a national commission (National Crime and Justice Task Force) to examine and produce recommendations on policing issues, including a nationwide review of police use of lethal force laws, policies, training and practices, which is urgently needed, as well as a thorough review and reform of oversight and accountability mechanisms. These laws, policies and practices must be brought in line with international standards.
  • The Department of Justice must ensure the collection and publication of nationwide statistics on police shootings in accordance with the Violent Crime Control and Enforcement Act (1994) and the Death in Custody Act (2014). The data collected should be disaggregated on the basis of race, gender, age, nationality, sexual orientation, gender identity and indigenous status.
  • Congress should take legislative action to ensure that all federal, state and local law enforcement officials restrict their use of lethal force in compliance with international law and standards. This should include enacting legislation requiring all law enforcement agencies to review and amend their policies by limiting the use of lethal force to those instances in which it is necessary to protect against the threat of death or serious injury. Congress should also pass the Police Reporting Information, Data, and Evidence Act and the End Racial Profiling Act.

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