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Race, Rights And Police Brutality

Recent federal and local initiatives to combat police brutality in the USA have not fully addressed the problem of racism in policing, a new Amnesty International report reveals.

The report -- USA: Race, Rights and Police Brutality (AI Index: AMR 51/147/99) -- shows that over-aggressive tactics, including unjustified police shootings, excessive use of force, misuse of police dogs and harassment, continue across the country with alarming regularity.

Ethnic and other groups - like the mentally ill, homeless, gay or transgendered individuals --are particularly affected. In most recent cases of unjustified police shootings, for example, the victims have been African American or other minorities, and some were children:

California -- August 1999. In an early morning narcotics raid, a SWAT team burst into the home of a Mexican immigrant family and shot dead an unarmed elderly man, Mario Paz, in his bedroom. He was reportedly shot twice in the back. No drugs were found in the raid and a different name to that of the residents was on the search warrant.

New Jersey -- June 1999. An unarmed African American was shot dead in New Jersey, after he tried to manoeuvre his car out of the way of two police cars which had boxed him in after a car chase. The officers fired 27 shots at his vehicle, and a female passenger was wounded on her leg. The case -- which remains under investigation-- is the latest in a series of questionable police shootings of unarmed motorists in New Jersey.

Illinois - June 1999. La Tanya Haggerty, a 19-year-old black girl, was shot dead when officers mistook the cell-phone in her hand for a gun.

"Race and police brutality are inextricably linked in the USA, but there are further problems," points out Angela Wright, Amnesty International researcher on the USA. "The mentally ill, the homeless and gay people are often harassed or subjected to undue force by police in some areas."

Further cases include: - - Miami -- May 1999. Lewis Rivera, a homeless man eating in a shopping mall was chased by five or six police officers who, according to witnesses, sprayed him with pepper spray, kicked him, threw him to the ground and bound his hands and feet before dragging him to a police car. He died less than an hour later in a police cell.

- - New York City -- November 1998. Two police officers responding to an emergency medical assistance call in the Bronx are alleged to have attacked transsexual JoLea Lamor. According to witnesses, the officers verbally abused her and pushed her against the wall after discovering that she was a transsexual. A large number of officers entered her apartment and maced family members.

While a growing number of police departments in the USA are subject to some form of external, civilian review, many continue to lack effective oversight. Police internal investigations into shootings or other use of force remain for the most part shrouded in secrecy, and all too often police officers involved in questionable shootings or use of excessive force are exonerated by criminal or administrative inquiries or receive a token punishment.

International standards provide that force should be proportionate to the threat faced, and that firearms should be used only in self defence or the defence others against an imminent threat of death of serious injury. Dozens of cases similar to those above occur annually in the USA, causing devastating loss to the families and costly payouts by cities in civil lawsuits.

The Amnesty International report offers 15 key recommendations to the federal government and local and state authorities to combat police abuse, including incorporation of international human rights standards into police codes of conduct and training, improving police accountability, and the collection of reliable national data on deaths in custody and police shootings -- information which is disturbingly lacking in the USA.

Amnesty International's current campaign on human rights in the USA, together with efforts by local organizations in the country, has helped push the issue of police brutality to the forefront of a national agenda for police reform. The Clinton Administration has taken several important steps this year to address the problem, particularly as regards the treatment or racial minorities.

"Nevertheless," says Angela Wright, "the 15 recommendations suggested by Amnesty International -- together with a greater degree of transparency in the investigation of complaints of police brutality -- should be urgently implemented."

"As President Clinton recently said at a national summit on police brutality: 'We don't have to choose between keeping safe and treating people right'.


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