Is the United States systematically violating human rights? Despite longstanding national (Declaration of Independence 1776) and international (United Nations 1948) declarations of relatively universal and inalienable/unalienable rights, disturbing videos have recently captured widespread attention as time after time, we watch American citizens brutalized by the American police (Eric Garner video 2015, Extended Video Tamir Rice shooting 2015, Legal expert compares Tanisha Anderson death to Eric Garner 2015, Ohio police high speed pursuit 2013). Time after time, we watch cases result in little or no punishment for police brutality. Yet time after time, cities and counties pay huge monetary settlements as compensation to victims or their families. And yet the law does not seem to change enough to prevent further brutality, even in the same police department. The weak response to such brutality appears to be systemic.
Consider the case of Tamir Rice (Cooper 2015). On November 22, 2014, 911 in Cleveland received a call that a young man in a park was waving a gun around, pointing it at people. The caller specified that it could be a child and it could be a toy gun, but he found it “scary”. The dispatcher notified the police, but did not pass along the information that it might be a child with a toy. As can be seen on the video (Extended Video Tamir Rice shooting 2015), the police car drove up close to the victim and within two seconds of arrival, the victim had been shot and dropped to the ground. He later died. The victim was later determined to be Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old child playing with a toy gun. It is not clear from the video, but it does not look like he was pointing the gun at the police. However, the police justified their actions by stating that he reached for his waistband.
This is in a city where unarmed victims Timothy Russell and Malissa Williams died on November 13, 2012 after 137 gunshots were discharged in or at their car by police (Lieszkovszky 2015), during which several police cars were hit by “friendly fire”; where Tanisha Anderson died on November 13, 2014 after police compressed her chest against the ground much like NYPD police did Eric Garner (Shaffer 2015); and many more police-created horrors had occurred (USDOJ 2014). After the deaths of Russell and Williams, the Department of Justice was asked to investigate. A few days after Tamir Rice died, the DOJ released their report.
They found a pattern of incompetence, carelessness, and excessive force, including an escaping hostage in boxer shorts who was shot at by police; a suicidal deaf man who was tased despite committing no crime; a handcuffed 13-year-old boy who was punched in the face by police; several tasings of handcuffed suspects, every one of which were afterward approved up the entire chain of command; and a war zone mentality. The punishment applied by the DOJ to the Cleveland Police Department? A consent decree, where an independent monitor will oversee the police. In particular, neither the shooters of Russell and Williams, the killer of Tanisha Anderson, nor the killers of Tamir Rice to date have gone to jail, nor do such consequences seem likely. As of this date, two “independent experts” have found the use of force in the Tamir Rice case “justified” (Cooper 2015).
While we are only now becoming aware of such shootings, and their disproportionality among blacks, this has been going on for a very long time (Goldkamp 1976). Clearly over 40 years of outrage have done little to change the behavior of the police. As videos became available, there was hope that individual police officers would be held responsible, but so far very little reaction has happened from the justice system, nor have there been many successful attempts to change the laws that govern the police.
Questions have been and are being asked regarding the view in the United States of the universality of human rights. These incidents show that the police respond more violently more often to blacks, but are they responding to more encounters with black criminals? Are are they guilty of bias? Goff et al. (2014) investigated people’s perceptions of black children. They found that in general, whites viewed blacks as less childlike, more responsible for their actions, appearing older than their actual age, less innocent, and even dehumanized by many (associated with apes). Furthermore, the investigators found that police officers who held the strongest views of dehumanization were far more likely to use excessive violence against children. They conclude that clearly the tendency of police officers to dehumanize “the other” is a dangerous attitude that tends to create violent treatment.
There is also evidence that such actions take place more frequently against people of low income (Kolezynski C 2015). People with higher income might give the police pause due to unknown contacts in power and better ability of these citizens to hire effective legal representation. Whatever the reason, Kolezynski found clear evidence that the majority of violent police actions occurred in low-income neighborhoods.
One of the best-documented cases of police use of force was that of the shooting of Michael Brown by Officer Darren Wilson (Department of Justice 2015). In their report on that case, the DOJ cites the legal definitions of “unreasonable” force and “willful” criminal intent, as previously defined by the U.S. Supreme Court. Under these standards, the only way to convict a police officer is to know what it is his/her mind at the time of the shooting. Therefore, the only one who would be convicted would be one who talked gloatingly about it afterward. If officers keep claiming they “feared” for their lives, they continue to get away with brutality even to the point of death.
Even after all the upheaval and protests over police brutality, the Supreme Court continues to excuse the police in cases before it. In the recent Supreme Court decision, City and County of San Francisco v. Sheehan, the court ruled that a mentally ill woman could not sue because of being shot by the police, because the police did not violate her Fourth Amendment rights (Denniston 2015). They left open that at some time in the future, the Fourth Amendment may require accommodations for the mentally ill, but it had not at the time this woman was shot.
In order for human rights to truly be universal, they must apply to all people regardless of race or income or disability, or even most actions. People’s human rights are not forfeit because one argues with the police, because one runs from the police, because one is emotional or upset in the presence of the police, because one “reaches for his waistband” (isn’t that approximately where our hands naturally rest?), or because one is seen by the police as “scary”. In the United States, a proper accounting of police behavior has begun with videotaping, but will require so much more. Police actions, determined by their thoughts and emotions, beliefs and training, need to be reviewed nationwide to decide upon the best ways to retrain the police to defuse tense situations rather than escalate them. Preconceived notions based on race or income or mental illness need to be challenged. If certain police departments have such an ingrained culture that they cannot be improved, then they should be shut down and their responsibilities handed over to a new group. Only when all people are treated with respect by all police will we begin to see the universal application of human rights that human dignity and freedom demand.