WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
10 Aug 2016 | Commentary

Police Abuse and Police Reform in the United States


This article is the second in a series looking at the need for police reform in the hemisphere. WOLA advocates for police forces that advance citizen security while protecting human rights, and for efforts that dignify the men and women who serve.

For more than two decades, WOLA has worked on issues of police abuse and police reform in Latin America, where abusive and corrupt police, often at the service of powerful political and economic interests, have been the source of widespread human rights abuses. Democratic societies, where citizens feel safe and free to exercise their rights, depend upon modern, professional, and civilian police forces.

Recent events have reminded us that police abuse and the need for reform have long been serious, but too often ignored, issues in the United States as much as in Latin America. Some efforts by authorities to combat these problems have been more successful and others less so. There continues to be serious problems of police abuse and of poor police-community relations in many U.S. communities. What has occurred in cities from Baton Rouge to Baltimore underscore the urgency of addressing these issues.

While each case has its own particularities, a deeply troubling pattern that involves implicit racial bias and the excessive use of force by police officers against African-Americans, particularly African-American men, has emerged in Ferguson, Baltimore, New York, Minneapolis, Baton Rouge, and other U.S. cities. These cases reflect very serious racial disparities in how police-citizen interactions take place. It has been equally troubling to witness several cases of attacks on police officers, apparently by disturbed individuals motivated, at least in part, by a desire to seek revenge or carry out reprisals.

The recent acts of violence in the United States take place in the context of deepening inequality and economic stagnation for many U.S. citizens, and in an election period where polarizing rhetoric is engulfing the country and generating a climate that is not conducive to problem solving or to reconciliation. Such rhetoric is dangerous, as is the increasing trend to stigmatize legitimate, peaceful protests.

The recent violent incidents should serve to open up the opportunity to address long-standing structural issues that plague the United States. Racial bias, excessive use of force, lack of justice for African-Americans, the all too easy access to high-caliber weapons, and the lack of trust of the police in marginalized communities all require immediate attention.

This conversation can and should start with the recognition that African-Americans are disproportionately the victims of police abuse and police killings. Racial profiling by police results in discrimination and violence against black victims. A similar pattern can be observed in treatment of Latinos and other groups. This must be openly discussed and addressed as part of reform efforts.

WOLA’s work on police reform has laid out key elements of a professional and democratic police force, whether in the United States or in Latin America. Police need high standards and systems for recruitment and training; they need strong internal and external mechanisms to control potential abuse; they need well-developed systems to conduct criminal investigations; and they need a well-designed approach to police-community relations.

Police-community relations must be built not only on knowledge of local dynamics, but also on trust. If police serve in a manner that protects everyone, marginalized communities are more likely to turn to law enforcement for security and for addressing conflict. In order for this to happen, police training programs—whether in academies or on the job—need to incorporate and prioritize tension de-escalation strategies and alternatives to lethal use of force. They need to sensitize police to the implicit biases that lead to racial and class profiling. This also means holding officers to high standards of conduct and professionalism, and punishing those who violate them. Building this mutual trust requires police departments to investigate and prosecute police abuses, and to do so swiftly and transparently.

It is troubling that many police forces are turning to the use of more militarized approaches, both in response to peaceful protests and as a general approach to patrolling. The experience of Latin America has shown that incorporating military equipment, tactics, and personnel in law enforcement is rarely effective. Instead, such approaches tend to increase violence and fuel schisms between law enforcement and marginalized communities. Policymakers are much better served by prioritizing prevention, and building local trust and sound police-community relations, than by emphasizing confrontation and the use of force.

Along with the need to work on police reform and police community relations, the United States needs to come to grips with the ways in which the easy availability of guns contributes to violence (both the killers of police in Dallas and Baton Rouge legally purchased the weapons they used). As the horrific massacres in Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook and elsewhere in the country show, gun violence is as serious a problem in the United States as it is in parts of Latin America. While gun violence affects all Americans, African-Americans are disproportionately affected. In addition, the widespread availability of high-caliber weapons endangers the safety of law enforcement officers, hampers their ability to protect others, and contributes to a climate of fear.

At a time of deeply polarized rhetoric, efforts to support police reform are too often dismissed as a “war on the police.” Such rhetoric is used to justify hardline approaches that criminalize protest and attack anti-police brutality campaigns, instead of responding constructively to policy recommendations. Reform and respect for human rights are essential to developing and maintaining professional police standards, and building the trust that will protect both law enforcement officials on the job and citizens in their homes and on the streets of their communities.